Sweatt’s Plea Bargain; Who Benefits from the Deal? The Defendant, the Attorney or the Government?

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Shanta Sweatt and her two sons in front of the James A. Cayce Homes, where she was arrested (Nina Robinson)

In an age where ‘not guilty’ is irrelevant and going to trial is discouraged is a plea bargain the best deal to take?  Understanding the pros and cons of pleading in court (whether guilty or innocent) is extremely important.  Read Shanta Sweatt’s story and understand all of the implications of a plea bargain deal.

Shanta Sweatt’s story is all too familiar. Sweatt was arrested and charged with a Class D felony (marijuana), which carried a two-to-12-year prison sentence.  She also received a misdemeanor related to paraphernalia found in her apartment.

On the night Sweatt was arrested, the police knocked on her door, and asked if they may enter.  Sweatt, a resident of public housing wasn’t sure whether she had the right to say no.

By law, she did have a choice. Sweatt could have told the police officers to come back with a warrant. However, she didn’t. Instead, she allowed them to enter and search her apartment. While searching the apartment, one officer located “small baggies of marijuana, containing a total of about 25 grams–a weight equivalent to about six packets of sugar.” They also found marijuana paraphernalia in the apartment.

Afraid to tell the truth (that the drugs weren’t hers), Sweatt made up a story. She told the officers that, the drugs belong to her and she had planned to take the drugs to California with a few of her homegirls.

Sweatt made a decision to protect her boyfriend, her two sons, and their friend because they all lived in the apartment together. Ultimately, the decision to lie had more consequences than she imagined. Not only did the police arrest her, but she had to pay bail, was also evicted from her apartment.

“Under the rules of the housing agency, her arrest prompted her eviction, which scattered her family.” She tried to get enough money to hire an attorney but just couldn’t afford one. Sweatt sought the help of a public defender; she was assigned a lawyer named Ember Eyster.

Shanta Sweatt (left) and her public defender Ember Eyster, in Eyster’s Nashville Office.

Eyster had several factors to address while reviewing the case.  Firstly, she must take into account that Sweatt confessed to a crime that she insists that she did not commit. Secondly, the police account of the circumstances of the arrest states that the officer received a tip that drugs were being sold from the apartment. Thirdly, Sweatt lived within 1,000 feet of an elementary school, which meant the District Attorney would enhance the charges. Lastly, Sweatt had a criminal history.

Due to all of these factors, Eyster knew that if Sweatt went to trial she would ultimately end up spending time in prison.  Even though she was innocent, the evidence of her guilt may appear strong to the jury.  She had to choose to fight the evidence with a not guilty plea or to explore other options.  A good attorney can help you explore your options and make the right choice for your situation.

The best option was to negotiate a plea agreement in exchange for no prison term. Sweatt plead guilty and the plea bargain strategy worked. The prosecutor reduced the charge to a felony Class A misdemeanor and offered Sweatt a six-month suspended sentence (meaning no prison time) with no probation. The paraphernalia charge was dismissed.

“Some 97 percent of federal felony convictions are the result of plea bargains.” 

Per The Atlantic, this is the age of the plea bargain. Most people who are adjudicated or sentenced in the criminal-justice system today waive the right to a trial.  As such, they waive the host of protections that go along with a trial, including the right to appeal. Instead, they plead guilty. The vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains–some 94 percent at the state level, and some 97 percent at the federal level. Estimates for misdemeanor convictions run even higher. These are astonishing statistics, and they reveal a stark new truth about the American criminal-justice system: Very few cases go to trial.

The vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains–some 94 percent at the state level, and some 97 percent at the federal level. Estimates for misdemeanor convictions run even higher. These are astonishing statistics, and they reveal a stark new truth about the American criminal-justice system: Very few cases go to trial.

Plea bargains work life this: when there is clear evidence of guilt and the defendants accept responsibility for their actions; in exchange for a guilty plea, they get leniency.  Plea bargains allow the court to avoid a lengthy trial and the system can quickly handle the criminal cases. “But plea bargains make it easy for prosecutors to convict defendants who may not be guilty, who don’t present a danger to society, or whose crime may primarily be a matter of suffering from poverty, mental illness, or addiction. And plea bargains are intrinsically tied up with race, of course, especially in our era of mass incarceration.”

Accepting a plea bargain often is more complicated than just pleading guilty. Prosecutors may use this to their advantage.  For instance, they could require information about criminal activities you have knowledge about (this is called snitching).  Next, once you plead guilty you have a criminal record. Once you have a criminal record, you may face lifetime consequences that negatively impact opportunities for education, employment, and housing.

Finally, and most importantly, if you face more serious charges, it is up to the Judge to sentence you. Plea bargains do not always result in no prison time or less prison time, so be careful what you accept!

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Karen Morrison
Karen Morrison was born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, New York. She received her Bachelor's Degree in Elementary/Middle School Education from Old Dominion University and her Master's in Instruction and Curriculum from the University of Phoenix. Karen is an advocate for criminal justice reforms and is currently working with federal inmates.

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