Judicial candidate expresses frustration with the plea bargain process

Michael Donnelly, a judge in the Cuyahoga (Cleveland) County Common Pleas Court was in Oxford Monday to take part in the Freedom Festival parade Uptown. CONTRIBUTED/BOB RATTERMAN

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Michael Donnelly, a judge in the Cuyahoga (Cleveland) County Common Pleas Court was in Oxford Monday to take part in the Freedom Festival parade Uptown. CONTRIBUTED/BOB RATTERMAN

Ohio Supreme Court candidate Judge Michael P. Donnelly is frustrated with a legal system that allows what he essentially calls “factually baseless plea agreements.”

The judicial candidate was in Oxford on Monday, July 2, to take part in the city’s Freedom Festival parade up High Street, and exclusively talked with this news outlet before his three-block walk.

A recommendation sent by the Ohio Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism to require plea bargain arrangements to actually fit the original crime was rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court on a 4-2 vote in January 2016 with one justice not taking part in the vote.

He became even more frustrated when the court refused to explain that vote, or discuss it.

Donnelly has served for 13 years as Cuyahoga (Cleveland) County Common Pleas Judge. He is the only current trial judge running for the Ohio Supreme Court. He is a former Chair of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism and currently a member of the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force.

Donnelly pointed to an article in an Ohio newspaper which called the proposal a “truth-in-sentencing rule.” The newspaper’s reporter was denied an interview on the topic for his story. Several states have put such rules in place, and Donnelly said he was upset that the Ohio Supreme Court refused to follow that lead.

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On Monday, he was standing nearby as the Oxford parade formed on West Walnut Street, carrying an inch-thick stack of papers with a dizzying number of court cases where defendants were permitted to plead to charges unrelated to their original offense. Donnelly said writing the proposed plea bargain rule was a three-year effort aimed at providing transparency to the process.

“I want to see the maximum efficiency, fairness and transparency,” he said.

That transparency, he said, would not only help in providing information — which would increase the public’s confidence in the judicial process — but also has public safety implications.

“Ninety-seven percent of cases are plea bargained in judges’ chambers. A lot of people are left out of the process, including the victim,” he said. “It was like an epiphany to do it on the record with everybody’s focus on the merits of the case or the not-merits. The idea is to get to the truth of the matter. Courts allow rape cases to plead the case down to something that has nothing to do with rape.”

That allows defendants to avoid required sex offender registry and prevents judges from having the information about prior sex offenses if there are repeat offenses. The record would only show a conviction for that other charge and not the original one.

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In an article Donnelly wrote an article for the American Bar Association’s “Litigation” magazine in 2016, he wrote, “(T)he requirement that such negotiated agreements reflect some level of truth about what actually occurred is vital to the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system.

“And public confidence is the lifeblood of that system — a belief that any dispute will be resolved in a fair, transparent and efficient manner consistent with the principles of truth and justice. This occurs when the accused is given the opportunity to resolve the case by pleading to an offense other than the offense charged and which they didn’t actually commit. Some in our profession euphemistically think of these as ‘legal fictions’; in my opinion, they’re more accurately described as lies.”

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Other candidates for the Nov. 6 General Election in the parade Monday included Vanessa Enoch, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress from Ohio’s 8th district; Dora Bronston, Democratic candidate for Butler County Commissioner; and Becky Howard, Democratic candidate for Ohio’s 53rd House seat (Oxford plus northern and western portions of Butler County).

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