What’s up: Fayettes of Fayette County shooting victims recently spoke out about their frustrations over suspects being acquitted or working out settlements with prosecutors.
They are speaking out about their concerns as Fayette County continues to utilize criminal mediation, a process initiated in April 2021 that helps reduce backlog by having prosecutors and defense attorneys work together in an effort. to reach a court settlement.
Why does it matter: The backlog of Fayette County court cases has caused some murder cases to go on for years without resolution. While mediation is intended to help alleviate the problem, it has left the families of some victims feeling as if justice has not been done.
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Whistleblower settlements have left the families of some victims upset
When James Terry was gunned down inside a Lexington bar in 2019, his family was left with grief and hope that the man who shot him would face justice in the Kentucky court system.
But after more than three years of trials, the case’s conclusion failed to bring Terry’s family a sense of justice. Larry Walters, 73, admitted he opened fire at the bar and killed Terry. But after originally being charged with murder, he accepted a plea deal from prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, giving him less time in prison and making him eligible for parole faster.
Terry’s family told the court they wanted harsher punishment, and they disagreed with Fayette Commonwealth’s attorney’s office, giving Walters a chance to plead lesser charges.
Families of other victims expressed similar frustrations at seeing someone responsible for killing a loved one accept a reduced sentence or be acquitted outright in a jury trial.
And as Lexington began participating in criminal mediation, a court process that brings together prosecutors and defense teams to negotiate more settlements, the families of some victims have grown more frustrated.
‘The heartache won’t end’
Some of Terry’s family members testified in court during Walters’ sentencing, saying they were unhappy with Walters’ reduced prison time.
Walters, who is now 73, faced a life sentence when he was originally charged. However, his sentence was reduced to 20 years when he agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter. Walters will be eligible for parole after serving 20% of his sentence, according to state law. As he was credited for the length of service while awaiting the resolution of his case, he will be eligible for parole next year.
Terry’s wife Linda Sue and son Chad Michael said in court that the justice system failed them when the Commonwealth Attorney’s office offered Walters a settlement.
“The Assistant Commonwealth Attorney’s office failed the families in offering this sentence and compromise,” she said. “I don’t understand how he gets 20 years for killing a man and will probably only be behind bars for five and a half months. So the onus is placed on me to go to a parole board to ask for more time.
“Even after I leave here today, the pain, financial burden and heartache won’t go away,” she added.
Walters’ case was not mediated. He accepted a plea deal earlier this year after a judge declared a judgment overturned in his case.
Another man, Danzell Cruse, received eight years on reduced charges after shooting and killing Jocko Green in July 2021. Cruse’s case was mediated, according to court records.
Several of Green’s loved ones spoke in court at Cruse’s sentencing and said the eight years would not bring reparations for his loss.
Green’s sister, Martina Morton, said eight years “wasn’t fair.”
“Eight years, that’s not justice,” she said. “Eight years will not bring the father of these children back. That’s not fair and he didn’t deserve to die. If justice doesn’t come to you now and you get rid of these charges, this will continue to happen with kids taking up guns.”
Victims’ families understand the benefits of mediation, still frustrated
Some family members of victims argue that while they understand the purpose of criminal mediation, victims do not get justice if a perpetrator accepts a plea deal.
Crime mediation was implemented in Fayette County in April 2021 in an effort to help resolve a backlog of criminal cases in the court system. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue of stuffed court precedents.
Crime mediation provides significant savings in court resources, utilizes the unique knowledge and experience of retired judges to mediate crime cases, and provides restorative justice for parties involved in mediation of crimes, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
In addition to these advantages, Fayette’s Commonwealth attorney Lou Anna Red Corn previously said that her office finds itself in a situation where it is necessary to amend the criminal charges.
“Changes to criminal charges are sometimes necessary to explain the evidence the prosecutor may present at trial,” Red Corn previously told the Herald-Leader. “The prosecutor must establish evidence beyond a reasonable doubt and all twelve jurors must agree to convict a person.
“Any decision to amend an offense in exchange for a guilty plea is based on the admissibility and strength of the evidence and the prosecutor’s assessment of the likely outcome of the trial. “
But Deanna Mullins, whose 19-year-old son was shot and killed in 2017, said she wouldn’t want her son’s case mediated if given the chance. The resulting court case took place before Fayette County began criminal mediation. The man who went on trial for Howard’s murder was acquitted after a jury trial in 2021.
But no victim’s family has a choice if the case goes to mediation. According to Red Corn, prosecutors can decide to mediate, but there have also been cases where a judge has ordered mediation despite disagreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“We speak with victims/survivors about defense requests to mediate and, in some cases, we encourage doing so,” said Red Corn. “We want them to participate to the extent they feel comfortable, but they are not obligated to attend. Mediations are like court proceedings – victims or survivors have the right to be present, to be heard and to speak with the mediator.
“How well this process goes varies depending on the victim or survivor and the mediator.”
Also, if a guilty plea results from mediation, that’s the prosecutor’s decision, according to Red Corn. The recommendation is consistent with the admissibility and strength of evidence of guilt and evidence of potential defences.
The facilitator can learn evidence and potential defenses when meeting privately with the defendant. Red Corn said its office speaks to victims about the reasons for the guilty plea recommendations, and sometimes victims do not agree with the decision.
“It is our goal to ensure that victims and survivors are treated fairly and allowed to participate in legal proceedings. It is the responsibility of the community to make the final decision,” she said.
Mullins said he feels a plea deal “gives the perpetrator and offenders a positive spin.”
“But the victims’ families are never considered in these cases,” Mullins said. “Our lives have been changed and turned upside down by taking our child or loved one, and we’ve been given dates where we have to go back and relive that trauma and do it again and again.”
Defense attorney Chris Tracy, regional bluegrass manager/assistant general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, said the criminal mediation process gives “intangibles” to defendants who get to see their families.
“I can have the defendant’s family there so they can see them, and come and get a hug. It’s not normal courtroom fodder and it gives parents a chance to be a part of the courtroom and help potentially younger clients who are looking into a murder charge,” Tracy said. “It’s helpful to have mom and dad there to help talk. There are really no downsides to be had.”
Mullins said it is painful because victims’ families are unable to speak to their loved ones or hug them.
“Many judges and defense attorneys don’t realize that we can’t hug our son or talk to our son,” she said. “We can’t go to court or call the prison and hear his voices. So to say that the defendant can have their families there to give them a hug and give them advice, that is very painful.”
Families should play a bigger role, says mother of shooting victim
Mullins feels victims’ families need more voice in the decision to submit a case for mediation. She is part of a group, Moms Demand Action, which works with lawmakers to combat gun violence and offers support to other survivors.
“I know we now have a lot of cases and reading past articles, (lawyers) want to reduce the number of cases, but it might just be a file or a number of cases for them, or a number, but that’s one person for us,” she says. said. “We want to consider that we are an extension to this individual – not a case or a file on a table – they exist and victims should play more roles in wanting to mediate or not.
“If we don’t want to, we want to go to trial. But we are not given that opportunity. We are given dates to show up and attend, we are not asked if we want it or not. We cannot make these decisions,” she said.