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Judge nixes plea bargain in Sinks Canyon shooting

Sep 18, 2013 - By Eric Blom Staff Writer

A judge has rejected the plea agreement for a man accused of shooting at three young adults in a case of road rage at a Sept. 18 hearing.

The move came after the same judge tentatively had accepted the deal in July. It's the first time a plea deal in a high-profile case has been rejected during Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett's tenure.

Defendant Jeremy Cunning-ham withdrew his guilty pleas to two of the six original charges, and prosecutors reinstated one of four counts the plea agreement dismissed.

'Satisfactory answer'

"I'm rejecting the agreement because of the number of victims compared to the number of charges he is pleading guilty to," District Court Judge Marvin L. Tyler said. "It doesn't make sense to me, and I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to that."

The agreement named two individuals as victims, but the original charging documents listed all three.

Victims and their families at the hearing complained the plea agreement did not mention the third person and was too lenient. They brought similar criticisms to Fremont County commissioners in July.

Initial charges

Prosecutors charged Jeremy Cunningham initially with three counts of attempted second-degree murder and three of aggravated assault.

One charge of each crime was connected to each of the three alleged victims.

Court documents allege Cunningham shot four times at three people on Jan. 31 on Sinks Canyon Road.

Following a plea agreement signed in June, Cunningham in July pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated assault, and prosecutors dropped all attempted murder charges and one aggravated assault charge.

Tyler also rejected the plea agreement because the 18-48 month sentence it stipulated would not allow Cunningham to receive the addiction treatment his pre-sentence investigation recommended.

The agreement requested 18 to 48 months in prison, but Cunningham would get credit for more than seven months in custody since his Feb. 1 arrest.

"He won't be there long enough for them to offer those (addiction treatment) services to him," Tyler said at the Sept. 18 hearing.

The judge was not concerned, however, that the plea agreement dropped the three attempted-murder charges, he said.

Motions granted

The deal signed with prosecutors allowed Cunningham to withdraw his guilty pleas if the judge rejected the deal, and the defendant asked to do so. Bennett requested the third aggravated assault charge be reinstated but the three attempted murder counts stay dropped.

Tyler granted both motions.

Under the plea agreement, Cunningham also would have had to pay $4,200 in restitution.

Cunningham's $100,000 cash bond will be continued, the judge said.

Arguing for the deal

Bennett and Cunningham's lawyer, Katherine Strike, argued for the plea agreement earlier in the hearing.

Cunningham had a good criminal history, and in any other case he would not receive prison time because of his record, Bennett said.

The plea agreement including a prison sentence sent a message, he said.

"Even if you're scared, you don't get a free pass if you put yourself in that position," Bennett said, referring to the events leading up to the shooting.

Incident

Strike sought to explain her client's side of the story.

The defendant and victims passed each other in their vehicles and had a "road-rage exchange," she said. The victims' vehicle turned around caught up with Cunningham, eventually pulling up alongside him as they climbed the two-lane highway into Sinks Canyon.

Her client stopped in order to turn around and retreat, Strike said, but the victims pulled over as well.

Cunningham remembers three people stepping out of the truck in front of him, and he got out as well.

"Mr. Cunningham felt threatened, felt afraid," she said. "Mr Cunningham acted out of self-defense... (but) the force he used was too great."

Prosecutors allege he shot four bullets at the victims, three of which lodged in the rear of their truck.

Each aggravated assault charge Cunningham faces now carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. His next court date has not been set.

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