Dennis Returning to Court Case Spotlights Plea Bargaining

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In the often acrimonious world of the criminal justice system, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges agree on one thing: Without plea bargains, the system wouldn't work.

"You need plea bargains or else you'll shut the courthouse down," Jacksonville defense lawyer Thomas Fallis said. "It's absolutely the only way the system can function."

State Attorney Harry Shorstein agreed.

"If every defendant demanded his or her right to a jury trial, the system would break down immediately," Shorstein said.

But sometimes, as in the federal theft case against state Rep. Willye Dennis and her daughter, a proposed plea bargain can backfire if a judge refuses to go along with a negotiated sentence.

As a result, Dennis is scheduled to be back in court today to face charges.

Usually, as part of plea agreement negotiations, federal prosecutors agree to recommend to judges the sentence they want defendants to receive. But the agreements aren't binding on judges. And most deals require defendants to accept whatever sentences judges ultimately hand down.

In Dennis' case, however, the agreement hinged upon whether she and her daughter received sentences of less than a year of house arrest.

When U.S. District Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger refused Thursday to be tied by the agreement, it left the door open for Dennis, D-Jacksonville, and her daughter to withdraw their pleas.

Dennis is scheduled to appear in court today to say whether she still intends to plead guilty and leave sentencing up to Schlesinger, or go to trial. She and her daughter, Wilene Dozier, face up to 10 years in prison under federal statutes.

Schlesinger, who has often complained in court proceedings that lawmakers have taken away the bulk of judges' sentencing discretion, indicated he thought prosecutors were trying to take away even more of his responsibility in the Dennis case.

"Congress has said we have certain sentencing guidelines; now I have a plea agreement that says, `Judge, this is what you'll do in this case,'" Schlesinger said in a July 30 hearing.

U.S. Attorney Charles R. Wilson wouldn't comment specifically on the Dennis case because it is continuing. But he said yesterday plea agreements in general are an important part of the justice system. He acknowledged it is rare for prosecutors to ask for a specific sentence. Usually they recommend a sentencing range and leave the decision to the judge.

"Every case is different," Wilson said.

In state court, judges often join in plea negotiations by saying what sentences they would be willing to impose. But federal judges are prohibited from participating in plea negotiations.

"It doesn't happen very often, but the court always has the prerogative not to accept a plea agreement," said defense attorney Gray Thomas, who works mostly on federal cases. "Then you have a choice, either renegotiate an agreement that might be acceptable to the court or go to trial or plead guilty straight up."

In Dennis' case, she and Dozier acknowledged in proposed plea agreements they pocketed $19,700 in government grants meant for their Northside day care, Fam-Co Learning and Development Center. …