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Candidates differ on use of jury trials

Monday, October 14, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

(Editor’s Note: The following is another article in a series pertaining to the Martinsville commonwealth’s attorney race in the Nov. 5 election.)

Martinsville may see fewer jury trials if Clay Gravely is elected as the city’s commonwealth’s attorney.

With such trials, “you risk the possibility of someone getting off scot-free,” even if they are guilty, depending on how members of a jury interpret details of a case, Gravely said.

He said Joan Ziglar, the city’s current chief prosecutor and his former boss, seeks jury trials too often.

Ziglar disagrees. She said there is “no better way to make sure the (judicial) process is fair” than to hold a trial before an impartial jury and judge.

She emphasized that she will not seek fewer jury trials if she is elected to a fifth four-year term.

Gravely, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney under Ziglar who now has a private law practice, said jury trials can become “a bullying tactic to force guilty pleas” from defendants when prosecutors use them too much.

Juries often hand down harsher sentences than judges would, Gravely said. For that reason, he said, defendants may plead guilty — even if they are not guilty — “out of fear for what the jury may do to them.”

Ziglar said police must have proof that someone is guilty of a crime, or evidence showing the person might be guilty, before charges are lodged against the person.

If there is no proof or evidence, a case cannot be taken into a courtroom, she said.

Judges can insist on a jury trial, and a defendant has the right to one, she pointed out.

Ziglar added that she never hears complaints when a defendant insists on having a jury trial.

But “for some reason,” she said, “people think it’s not efficient when the commonwealth uses the same tool.”

Plea bargains are a way that prosecutors get cases resolved without going to trial.

In a plea bargain, a defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing to drop a more severe charge and not seek a trial.

Ziglar recalled campaigning on a platform of reducing plea bargains. She said that in her 15 years as the commonwealth’s attorney, she has “very seldom” used them — she could not recall an exact number.

She said she has used plea bargains to, for example, get street-level drug dealers to snitch on higher-level dealers who supply them and are harder to catch.

Yet plea bargains are “a way that a lot of commonwealth’s attorneys ... get (cases) through the system” quickly to save time and money, Ziglar said.

If they are overused, there is less justice for crime victims, she said.

Gravely said plea bargains should be used by prosecutors “only after making an educated guess as to the quality of your case and the nature and strength of the evidence.”

Plea bargains are worthwhile, he said, if a prosecutor risks a criminal walking free.

“Some sort of punishment is accomplished,” he said, even if it does not fit the severity of the crime.

Plea bargains should be used sparingly, but they are “a necessary evil in the job of a prosecutor,” Gravely continued.

If he is elected, he said, he will use plea bargains only “when the ultimate goal of justice” is achieved by using them.

But “I’ll keep every tool in the tool box ... to make sure I’m doing my job effectively,” he said.

Ziglar said she has no plans to change any of her procedures if she is re-elected, or to say that she will change anything just to get re-elected.

She makes no apologies for any tactics she uses that some people might think are heavy-handed.

“It’s working,” Ziglar said of the tough approach to dealing with crime.

She noted that crime in Martinsville is at a 30-year low, based on statistics that former police chief Mike Rogers presented before he retired this year.

Furthermore, Ziglar said that Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry has told her that because of her policy of taking all drug distribution cases to a jury and seeking the maximum allowable sentences, some “drug dealers are taking their business to the county” rather than doing business in Martinsville.

“Now is not the time to start soft-pedaling against crime,” she said.

 

 
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