How the Media Can Change the Course of Justice (5/20/98)
Few understand the concept of plea bargaining with most believing it involves the prosecution offering a “deal” for no reason whatsoever. Of course, plea bargains are a necessary evil of the criminal justice system and, as I often say, the product of such an agreement is typically not a matter of justice but a matter of proof. After all, if you can’t prove your case, even the worst perceived plea bargain is better than the alternative.

In any event, once the prosecution makes an offer that is accepted, a deal is a deal. I’ll never break an agreement even if I realize the next morning that I made a mistake. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, my word and integrity of the office mean too much to be sacrificed because of one bad plea deal.

That being said, I read with interest this week the case of The State of Texas v. Robert F. Sierra, Jr. out of Dallas County. Mr. Sierra is a multiple time loser, primarily in the area of DWI, who found himself in hot water again when he was involved in a one car traffic accident. Sierra fled the scene leaving his passenger to die. The State charged him with failure to stop and render aid and, somewhat surprisingly, manslaughter for recklessly causing the death of another. I use the term "surprisingly" because individuals rarely face criminal charges due to traffic accidents.

Before trial, however, a plea bargain was reached wherein Mr. Sierra would receive probation on both charges. Obviously, such an agreement seems somewhat lenient based upon the criminal history of the defendant, but it is possible that there were proof problems. I don’t know. Nevertheless, the agreement was heard before a magistrate and approved.

Then the roof fell in.

The victim’s family had not been consulted before the plea agreement was reached and the mighty Dallas Morning News jumped on the story. The Dallas D.A.’s office immediately began backtracking but initially conceded  there was not much that could be done. A deal was indeed a deal.

Nevertheless, the magistrate’s action had to be formally approved by District Judge Molly Francis. I have no personal knowledge of how the criminal system works in Dallas, but I’ll bet the ranch that almost all of the plea agreements approved by a magistrate are routinely subsequently sanctioned by the District Judge.

But not this time.

Judge Francis rejected the agreement and announced “We are going to start from square one.” While I’m in the wagering mood, I’ll also bet she subscribes to the Morning News or is at least aware of the great number of people who do.

But whether a judge bowed to public pressure is not exactly an earth shaking development. It happens all the time. What is a bit disturbing, however, is the fact that “Assistant District Attorney Dennis Jones, the chief felony prosecutor who signed off on the agreement, asked Judge Francis on Monday not to approve the magistrate’s findings.”


A few days before ADA Jones puts his name on a document agreeing to the plea bargain before the magistrate and then he turned around, after his boss condemned the deal, and asked the District Judge not to approve it. As I said, a deal is a deal. If you screw up, you have no choice other that to take your public flogging and go on. The system simply will not function if every deal is conditioned on the Dallas Morning News not printing it on page one of the metro section. (By the way, the entire fiasco resulted in Jones, a 13 year veteran prosecutor, being demoted to the office’s auto theft division).

But what is probably even more distasteful is the comment of state representative Will Hartnett of Dallas who said that he planned to lobby the parole board to get Mr. Sierra placed behind bars based upon the fact that he (Sierra) is currently on parole for previous DWIs. If Rep. Hartnett wishes to get involved in every single felony case arising out of Dallas County, then so be it. But to jump on Mr. Sierra simply because the case had become front page news is “political maneuvering” at its worst. One final bet: 100 to 1 says that Rep. Hartnett would not have given the case the time of day had not it become newsworthy.

Disposing of criminal cases whether by trial or by agreement is a trying, emotional experience. But those involved have to be consistent based upon the facts of each case.

The red flagging of a case because it is in the cross hairs of Dallas’ only daily should make no difference.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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