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Bennett says his office uses plea deals fairly

Aug 22, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Despite recent criticism, Fremont County and Prosecuting Attorney Michael Bennett thinks his administration uses plea agreements fairly.

"I think (plea bargains under my administration) are all in the interest of justice," Bennett said. "They all have produced a positive result in terms of accountability for the crime and acknowledgement of responsibility for the crime."

Complaint

On July 2, resident Carol Weil told the Fremont County Commission that "the prosecutor's office and victim witness service failed us."

Weil's son Dalton Weil was a victim in an aggravated assault case that is likely to involve a plea agreement.

"Please review and correct the procedures that led up to this slap on the wrist for him and slap on the face for us," she said.

Bennett was present at the July 2 meeting but did not speak. Later he said he could not comment on the case involving Weil because it has not gone to sentencing and so is not closed.

According to court documents, Jeremy Cunningham shot at but did not injure Dalton Weil and two other young adults on Sinks Canyon Road in January. A judge on July 3 tentatively accepted a plea agreement between the County Attorney's Office and Cunningham that dropped three attempted murder charges and one for aggravated assault, leaving two counts of aggravated assault.

The agreement asks for a sentence of 18 to 48 months in prison.

Carol Weil said Bennett's office did not tell the victims that a plea agreement had been reached. She said her experience with the county's Victim/Witness Services department left her and others involved feeling uninformed and misinformed."

She added that the agreement "canceled out all seriousness of the crime," noting that the reduced charges make no mention of one of the three victims involved.

The mothers of the other two victims echoed Carol Weil's comments.

Response

In an interview, Bennett said it is hard for the public to accurately judge officials' decisions about charges.

"The public needs to understand I am privy to a tremendous amount of information that's not available to the public," he said. "I will try to explain those (charges) the best I can ... after the cases are finished."

Carol Weil on July 2 said she was hoping for an explanation for the "alarming, radical downturn" in the charges.

"Mr. Bennett did not seem interested in giving us an explanation," she said.

Former deputy county prosecutor Kathy Kavanagh also spoke against Bennett at the July 2 meeting.

"Fremont County is lucky it did not have a triple homicide in this case," she said. "It is incomprehensible that (Bennett) agreed to an 18-month sentence. ... I think the only viable option left to the commission is to put the pressure on him and ask for his resignation.

Officials noted that the Fremont County Attorney is an elected official and cannot be removed from office by commissioners. Bennett was appointed to the post after former Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn resigned in January.

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