Jose’s Plea Deal — 44 Days to Determine the Rest of his Life
In October/November 2012 Jose Quiroz was given 44 days to make the most important decision of his life. He had been offered a plea deal, by Elkhart Prosecutor Curtis Hill, that would see him serve 45 years in prison for the murder of his friend, even though Jose has never killed anyone. He was 16-years-old at the time. He had just committed a burglary, witnessed the death of his friend and been charged with murder. He was adapting to life in adult prison without his mom and regular support network. He was being advised by a public defender he did not know. Jose was not given the time to determine if he trusted the public defender who was assigned to help him navigate the Indiana legal system. Jose did not have the necessary support or time to fully understand the consequences or ramifications of this plea deal. This is the story of how Jose Quiroz had 44 days to determine the course of his life.
Over the past few months this blog and much of the media attention covering the Elkhart 4 has focused on Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and to a lesser extent Anthony Sharp. Very little has been written about the fourth member to the Elkhart 4, Jose Quiroz. The main reason for this is that on Thursday November 16, 2012 Jose plead guilty to the felony murder charge against him. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison with another 10 years suspended. Jose accepted a plea deal. By accepting the plea deal Jose is unable to appeal his conviction for felony murder. Jose is currently looking for post conviction relief (a process where he is asking the court to reduce his sentence) and has a hearing in February 2015. The fact that Jose’s case is not being appealed has meant that there has been little attention placed on his story. Yet by examining Jose’s story we can learn a lot about a major change in the way the justice system operates. In this article we are going to examine Jose’s experience through the Indiana Court System to shine some light on the phenomena of plea-bargaining.
97% percent of individuals convicted in the US Federal justice system never have their case heard by a jury. In Indiana it is estimated that 97.5% of individuals convicted never had their case heard by a jury. That is because plea bargains are now the most common way to resolve criminal cases in the United States. Plea bargains are when the state and an accused agree upon a conviction, often for a reduced sentence for the defendant.
Before the Civil War plea bargains were very rare. This was because the writers of the Constitution were suspicious of the power of government. It is for this reason that they included in the Bill of Rights several ways to protect those accused of criminal activity. Included in the Bill of Rights was the right to be informed of the charges, the right not to incriminate oneself, the right to a speedy public trial, the right to an impartial jury, the right to cross examine the state’s witnesses, the right to call witnesses and the right to a lawyer. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Trial by Jury was a new and powerful right that people took advantage of. Plea bargains demand that an accused give up many of their rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and early on most people would not consider giving up these hard won rights.
After the Civil War plea bargains became more commonplace. Many in the legal system saw plea bargains as a way to speed up justice and while lessoning the burdens of trials on the court system. Then in the 1970’s and 1980’s new tough on crime laws were passed. One aspect of these laws was harsh sentences and mandatory minimums. The states and the federal government have used those mandatory minimums to pressure accused to accept plea bargains for shorter sentences. This has led to the current situation where the fear of extreme sentencing has caused the vast majority of criminal cases to be resolved using plea bargains.
In November 2014 federal judge Jed Rakoff wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty”. In this essay Rakoff suggests that thousands of innocent people are in jail because they “felt pressured to plead guilty”. He believes this is the case because prosecutors have “way too much power”. He reminds the reader, “prosecutors can determine which crime to charge defendants with, and they can often charge defendants with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences”. The judge continues “If a jury finds the defendant guilty, a judge has no choice but to hand out a harsh sentence . . . . Prosecutors can offer dramatically reduced sentences if defendants plead guilty but charge the maximum if defendants plead not guilty.” Judge Rakoff believes that plea deals can lead to false guilty pleas. Rakoff writes,
After all, the typical person accused of a crime combines a troubled past with limited resources: he thus recognizes that, even if he is innocent, his chances of mounting an effective defense at trail many be modest at best. If his lawyer can obtain a plea bargain that will reduce his likely time in prison, he may find it “rational” to take the plea.
It is with these facts in mind that we explore the plea bargain of Jose Quiroz. Jose Quiroz is not innocent of criminal activity. This blog, his family and Jose himself have never suggested this. In October 2012 Jose and his friends Blake, Levi, Danzele and Anthony broke into a house in Elkhart Indiana. The boys thought the house was unoccupied. They were wrong and the scared homeowner shot and killed Danzele. The surviving boys were arrested and charged with felony murder in the death of Danzele, even though none of the boys killed him. There is no question that Jose committed a crime that day . . . what is in dispute is was the charge felony murder, how the court dealt with the juvenile status (under age of 18) of Jose, Blake and Levi and the very long sentences they were given. This blog advocates for the Elkhart 4, but we have been very consistent in condemning their actions in October 2012.
According to Jose’s testimony in court in August of 2013 he was on drugs when he broke into the house in October 2012. He was still on drugs when police questioned him. During that questioning he admitted to his role in the crime . . . the crime of burglary. Then he was charged with felony murder and assigned a public defender. This is how Judge Rakoff describes this situation . . .
Against this background, the information-deprived defence lawyer, typically within a few days after the arrest, meets with the overconfident prosecutor, who makes clear that, unless the case can be promptly resolved by a plea bargain, he intends to charge the defendant with the most severe offences he can prove . . . . If, however, the defendant wants to plead guilty, the prosecutor will offer him a considerably reduced charge [or sentence] . . . In this typical situation, the prosecutor has all the advantages. He knows a lot about the case (and . . . probably feels more confident about it that he should, since he has only heard from one side), whereas the defence lawyer knows very little. Furthermore, the prosecutor controls the decision to charge the defendant with a crime . . . But what really puts the prosecutor in the driver’s seat is the fact that he – because of mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines, and simply his ability to shape whatever charges are brought – can effectively dictate the sentence by how he publicly describes the offence . . . Put another way, it is the prosecutor, not the judge, who effectively exercise the sentencing power, albeit cloaked as a charging decision.
In Jose’s case the Elkhart County Prosecutor, Curtis Hill, using the evidence collected by the police when Jose was under the influence of drugs, offered Jose the minimum sentence for felony murder in exchange for a guilty plea. In August 2013 during the trial of the other members of the Elkhart 4 Jose stated “attorneys said he would go to prison for 108 years if he didn’t accept their plea”. He also stated that he lied during his interrogation and during the court hearings about his plea deal (http://www.elkharttruth.com/crime-fire-courts/2013/08/21/Teen-sentenced-for-murder-testifies-in-joint-trial-for-three-others.html ).
In December 2012 when Jose Quiroz appeared before the court for his sentencing he requested to revoke his plea deal (http://www.goshennews.com/news/teen-gets–year-prison-term-for-role-in-fatal/article_a0b1142c-941e-59c0-a7a5-db234f477754.html ).
When the 16-year-old Jose accepted the plea deal he accepted giving up several of his constitutional rights. This has had huge ramifications on his ability to pursue post conviction legal options. Unlike the other members of the Elkhart 4, Jose is unable to appeal his conviction.
Jose’s plea deal was arranged between his arrest on October 3, 2012 and his court date on November 16, 2012. In total it took 44 days. In those 44 days Jose was coming down from being high on illegal drugs, mourning the death of his friend, adapting to his new living arrangements (a 16-year-old boy in an adult jail), and dealing with the separation from his mom his family and his support network. Added to all of this is the fact that his advocate, a public defender who he hardly knew, was telling him he was facing decades or even a century in prison.
At 16 the State of Indiana will not let a person vote. At 16 the state of Indiana will not let a person drink alcohol. 16-year-olds have several limitations placed on them by the government because the government believes they are not mature enough to take on all the benefits and responsibilities of an adult. Yet at age 16 Jose was given 44 days to navigate the complexities of the Indiana Judicial system while under great personal stress. He was given 44 days to make a decision with huge ramifications for the rest of is life.
Jose was sentenced to 45 years in prison and 10 years of probation. With good behavior he could be out of prison after 22.5 years. He will be in his late 30’s. We do not know how the appeals of the other members of the Elkhart 4 will be resolved. With the resolution of the appeals we will have a better understating if Jose Quiroz’s plea deal was a good or bad decision. What we do know is the State of Indiana gave a 16 – year old boy 44 days to make life-changing decisions with only the support of a public defender. Jose had to decide whether to risk everything on a trial or to give up some of the most important constitutional protections to guarantee 22.5 – 45 years in prison. I am not sure Jefferson and the framers of the constitution saw the legal system working this way.
Jose’s plea deal was negotiated in secret before being announced in court on November 16, 2012. During the August 2013 trial of Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp, Jose said the Elkhart Prosecutor and his public defender pressured him into the plea deal. On the stand Jose’s public defender denied pressuring Jose to accept the plea deal. We can’t know the truth because the deal was negotiated in secret.
In his essay Judge Rakoff states “Jefferson’s perception that a criminal justice system that is secret and government-dictated ultimately invites abuse and even tyranny” Judge Rakoff believes that the secretiveness of plea deals means there is “almost no review, either internally or by the courts. Such a secretive system inevitably invited arbitrary results.” Judge Rakoff believes these results are “one-sided”, in favor of the prosecution. He states,
Our criminal justice system is premised on the notion that, before we deprive a person of his liberty, he will have his “day in court,” i.e., he will be able to put the government to its proof and present his own facts and arguments, following which a jury of his peers will determine whether or not he is guilty or a crime and a neutral judge will, if he is found guilty, determine his sentence. As noted, numerous guarantees of this fair-minded approach are embodied in our Constitution, and were put there because of the Founding Fathers’ experience with the rigged British system of colonial justice.”
Judge Rakoff argues that the plea system that Jose Quiroz went through is just as rigged as the “British system of colonial justice” that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers’ were fighting against. In closure, we are reminded that in the past few years there have been a number of exonerations of people who initially accepted a plea deal. Judge Rakoff in his essay conservatively estimates that in the USA there is at lease 20 000 people currently in prison for crimes they did not commit because of the power of the prosecutor when negotiating plea deals. Jose Quiroz is not one of those people, but perhaps he is in a second category . . . someone who accepted a plea deal to an inappropriate charge. We will know the answer when/if the Indiana Supreme Court (or the US Supreme Court if needed) rules on the felony murder convictions of Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp.
RESOURCES Judge Rakoff’s essay http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/nov/20/why-innocent-people-plead-guilty/
Article about Jude Rakoff’s essay
Media Links related to Jose’s Plea Deal
Indiana Law Blog