Sep 09, 2008

A Plea Bargain That Didn't Sell

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Almost every criminal case ends with a plea bargain. Prosecutors and defense lawyers agree on defendants' sentences, and judges make them official by accepting the agreed-upon terms. But in the high-profile case of Henry Samueli, the judge's refusal to accept a plea bargain serves as an important reminder that judges still have ultimate control over sentencing.

Samueli was a principal in Broadcom, a company that made a fortune by designing and selling computer chips. Samueli and other greedy Broadcom executives have been accused of inflating their already huge earnings by backdating stock options and then lying to the Securities & Exchange Commission about what they did. In the summer of 2008, Samueli pleaded guilty to lying to the SEC, but the guilty plea would stand only if the judge accepted the plea bargain that Samueli's lawyers worked out with federal prosecutors. Samueli's deal: He would not go to prison, but instead would be put on probation and pay a $12 million fine to the government. 

Federal judge Cormac Carney said, "No deal." To the judge, Samueli seemed to be buying his way out of prison by paying a far greater fine than the judge could impose after a trial. Also, the agreement failed to require Samueli to cooperate with prosecutors in cases involving other Broadcom executives.

Samueli can now withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. If so, the jury will never be told that he had at one point tried to end the case by pleading guilty. More likely, the lawyers will try to work out a plea bargain that Judge Carney will accept. Samueli undoubtedly hopes that the judge will say, "You've got a deal" -- even if a revised agreement allows Samueli to avoid going to prison.

Speaking of options, you should know that plea bargains don't always give criminal defendants the right to withdraw guilty pleas should judges refuse to go along with their terms. A prosecutor may say something like, "I'll recommend to the judge that you not serve time in jail, but the sentence is up to them, and your guilty plea is final even if the judge refuses to follow my recommendation." In this situation, the defendant cannot not withdraw the guilty plea if the judge imposes a jail sentence.