News of Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming, from the Ranger's award winning journalists.
County attorney addresses recent plea deals
Aug 28, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer
The new official has come under criticism for resolving high-profile criminal cases with agreements.
Four months after taking office, Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett has overseen a string of high-profile criminal cases.
His administration has resolved all but one of the cases through plea agreements -- and has faced criticism for doing so.
In an interview, Bennett explained his rationale for using plea bargains and talked about the penalties he sought in some of those cases.
One benefit to a plea agreement, Bennett said, is that criminals have to plead guilty when accepting them.
"Our society places an importance on acceptance of responsibility," he said. "If someone is willing to accept responsibility, then that is worth something to (the public)."
Bennett also cautioned against judging plea agreements too quickly, saying he has access to much more information about a case than the public does. He cannot comment on open cases, but Bennett said he would talk about those that have gone through sentencing hearings.
"That is part of the transparency I offer to the public," Bennett said.
Looking at recent cases that saw plea agreements shows how the prosecutor approaches the subject.
On July 3, Lander District Court Judge Norman E. Young accepted a plea bargain for Chance Clark, also known as Chance Moore. In December, Clark committed arson while he was on probation for other crimes. Under his plea agreement, he received two to five years in prison, seven years probation and six to 12 years incarceration if he violates his probation. The two- to five-year prison sentence is technically for violating probation, and the second piece is his penalty for arson.
Speaking at the hearing, the victims in the case said they thought the sentence was too short. But Bennett said Clark's sentence will give the arsonist a "taste" of prison at a "tender young age." Afterward, Clark will have a chance to show he has changed during his seven years of probation, or he will face the longer prison term, Bennett said.
"I've given Mr. Moore enough rope to pull himself out of the hole he's dug, or hang himself," Bennett said. "The choice is his."
Bennett thinks the two-part sentence is better for the community than having Clark simply serve both prison terms consecutively.
"There has been a realization (that) the longer you go to prison does not mean the nicer you come out," Bennett said.
He is hoping whatever softening effect prison has on Clark occurs in the first two to five years.
The plea agreement in the case of a man accused of shooting at three young adults along Sinks Canyon Road attracted harsher criticism.
Parents of the alleged victims and a former deputy prosecutor, told the Fremont County Commission during a recent meeting that the 18- to 48-month sentence requested in the deal was too lenient.
Bennett said he could not comment on the case because it is still open.
Four moose poachers recently received about a week in prison each for slaughtering four animals illegally. All had to pay a $7,500 fine, and three lost their hunting privileges for life, while the fourth has hunting privileges suspended for 20 years.
The prison sentence was a small fraction of the maximum four-year terms the defendants faced.
Bennett said the sentence was appropriate because the poachers were convicted of a misdemeanor, and Wyoming Game and Fish cases rarely result in much jail time.
"To get a case with some jail time was a wonderful sentence," the prosecutor said. "They were punished according to what they did."
Benett also said removing their hunting privileges was a "tremendous loss."
Other plea bargains under Bennett have not incited public criticism and involved sentences that were significant portions of the maximum possible for charges.
Alma Mosho pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide for driving drunkenly and killing a St. Stephen's woman in the parking lot of a Kinnear bar Dec. 3. Prosecutors asked for a 10- to 20-year prison sentence in a plea agreement, but Mosho's lawyer argued in court for four to six years.
District Court judge Marvin L. Tyler gave Mosho a sentence of 10 to 12 years. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.
"Given the facts of this case, we thought it was appropriate," Bennett said, referring to a 10-20 year sentence. "The judge disagreed -- that's the job of the court."