National Roundup

Court declines to change rules on plea deals

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The state’s top court on Thursday decided to continue allowing defendants to plead to lesser crimes that don’t bear much resemblance to the facts of the original charge.

Some trial court judges argued that such pleas undermine public confidence in the courts, saying the seriousness of a crime sometimes isn’t reflected in the end result.

“Baseless pleas are an affront to the very principles our justice system was designed to promote: that is, truth and justice,” Michael Donnelly, a judge in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County court, said in a letter to a Supreme Court committee reviewing the use of such pleas.

Plea bargains that stray from the facts in sex crimes can also allow defendants to avoid having to register as sex offenders, Donnelly said.

The Ohio Supreme Court without comment declined to move the proposal forward. Donnelly said Thursday he was disappointed but would continue to push the issue.

Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey, among other states, require a plea to have some basis in the facts of the crime.

More than 20 states limit prosecutors’ ability to resolve drunken driving cases with plea bargains that dismiss or eliminate an impaired-driving charge, according to the National Center for State Courts. New Mexico allows plea bargains as long as one of the convictions includes at least one offense related to driving under the influence.

Ohio’s proposed restrictions were supported by the Ohio Coalition to End Sexual Violence and the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. They support plea bargains, especially if they spare victims the trauma of a trial, but they want any lesser charges to include some element of the original sexual assault crime.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys say creative negotiations are occasionally needed for cases with flawed evidence or uncertain witnesses.

Sometimes prosecutors have to take the sure bet on a conviction, albeit on a lesser charge, instead of potentially letting a defendant go unpunished, said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty.

Plea bargains can offer a “safety valve” for situations in which mandatory punishments for the original charge might not fit the circumstances of an offender or provide the best hope for rehabilitation, said Tim Young, the Ohio state public defender.

Widow of mass shooting victim sues for $58M

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — The widow of a man killed in last month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino has filed four claims against the county and is seeking damages totaling $58 million, according to a newspaper report.

The claims were filed in late December on behalf of Renee Wetzel, whose 37-year-old husband Michael Wetzel was one of 14 people killed in the attack at the Inland Regional Center, the San Bernardino Sun reported Tuesday.

No other claims stemming from the shootings have been filed against San Bernardino County, spokeswoman Felisa Cardona told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Michael Wetzel, of Lake Arrowhead, worked as a supervising environmental health specialist for the county. He was killed while attending a holiday luncheon and training session for the county health department.

His widow is seeking $3 million from San Bernardino County for loss of wages and $25 million in general damages. She is also seeking $10 million in general damages for each of her three minor children.

The claims, which list the county and 25 unidentified individuals as respondents, alleges Wetzel’s death was preventable and caused by negligent, careless actions of the respondents.

Andrew J. Nissen, one of two attorneys representing Renee Wetzel and her children, told the Sun that county officials had yet to respond to the claims. He declined to elaborate about the negligence claims.

County spokesman David Wert said in a statement that the county will carefully consider each claim and act in the best interests of everyone involved.

The FBI called the Dec. 2 shooting the deadliest terror strike on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
The two shooters — county environmental health specialist Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik — were killed in a gun battle with police.

Shooter says he didn’t plan attack on health clinic

DENVER (AP) — A man who acknowledged killing three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic told a television station that the shooting was spur-of-the-moment, and that he targeted the reproductive health organization because it’s “murdering little babies.”

In a phone call from jail, Robert Lewis Dear told KCNC-TV on Wednesday that he didn’t plan the Nov. 27 shooting that also left nine people injured.

Dear said he believes FBI agents were following him that morning, and they tipped off employees that he was headed to the clinic.

“When I busted in that door on the side, all the people were gone,” he said. “So they had been tipped off by the FBI or somebody. All the employees, everybody had gotten out the back.”

Dear also said the law enforcement agency had been harassing him for years, breaking into his rural Colorado trailer and cutting holes in his clothes.

“I felt like they were going to get me, and so I am going to pick where I am going to make my last stand, and I picked Planned Parenthood because it’s murdering little babies,” he said. “Well, when I got there, of course, those guys knew I was armed, knew everything about me. They slither off like snakes and they get the local cops to do their dirty work, so that’s why the shootout was there.”
Denver FBI spokeswoman Deborah Sherman declined to comment, citing a gag order in case.

Prosecutors have charged Dear, 57, with 179 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, assault and other crimes.

Dear exchanged gunfire with police during an hours-long standoff while dozens of people hid inside the clinic and neighboring businesses. Dear said he expected to die that day but gave up instead.

During a court appearance, Dear declared himself a “warrior for the babies” and said he was guilty. A judge ordered him to undergo a mental competency exam after he said he wanted to fire his public defender and represent himself.

Dear’s attorney, Daniel King, raised doubts about Dear’s mental health after his repeated outbursts during court appearances.

Dear told the Denver television station, “I am sane, I am coherent, I have a college degree.” He said he will refuse to cooperate with his court-appointed examiners.

“If I am coherent and sane why would I want to open Pandora’s box and start answering all their questions so they can twist it around and say he’s not?” Dear said.

“Well I’m just an honest man and I believe I’m guilty, so I am just going to plead guilty,” he said.