Judge takes time to mull plea deal
FRISCO – District Court Judge David Lass has been listening to the district attorney’s and a defense attorney’s requests for a plea bargain in a murder case since March 2003.
It seems a simple enough matter – a suspect willing to testify against fellow suspects, as long as the judge agrees not to send him to a state prison.
But the matter has gone on and on because it cuts to the fiber of the court’s notions of justice and complicity in the beating death of Cody Wieland in Breckenridge in the wee hours after Halloween 2002.
Lass sat Wednesday in a makeshift courtroom in the Summit County Community and Senior Center near Frisco (courthouse construction has scattered hearings for the summer), listening to what is ostensibly the seventh version of a proposed plea agreement, called a stipulated motion, in the case of defendant Michael Scott Dietert.
He agreed to weigh the seventh version of the request.
Like they have the half-dozen times before, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert and defense attorney Daniel Recht outlined why they steadfastly pursue the deal.
Dietert, 22, is charged with manslaughter. The 36-year-old Wieland died upon being removed from life support nine days after he was attacked on Breckenridge’s Main Street.
Testimony from witnesses in initial police interviews and the January trial of another suspect in the attack indicate that Dietert was not the primary aggressor in the assault, but may have only delivered a few blows or held the victim down.
For more than a year, Dietert has offered to give his own testimony against the other two suspects, in exchange for a sentencing deal that keeps him out of prison, where snitches are not popular cellmates.
By no means a “smoking gun” or a crucial lynch pin in the prosecution, Hurlbert has said Dietert’s testimony, and the leniency that would buy it, would serve the interests of justice.
This became critically clear, Hurlbert told Lass Wednesday, in the first case that went to trial in the death.
When jurors went to deliberate the fate of Brian Stockdale, who was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter for Wieland’s death, there was some confusion about which suspect had done what – and, in fact, how many suspects there were.
In an interview with the Summit Daily News in January after the jury had delivered its verdict of guilty on first-degree assault and manslaughter, one juror complained about the fuzziness of witnesses’ 18-month-old memories and that there was no clear picture of what happened.
Hurlbert told Lass Wednesday that that obfuscation was because Dietert was blocking the witnesses’ field of view. If anyone can clear up what happened, it’s Dietert, he said.
“At trial, the question of a fourth suspect arose,” Hurlbert said.
“The defendant can say that there were only three people. With his testimony, the prosecution becomes a matter not of who did it, but what happened. This can be the difference between second-degree murder, manslaughter or some other charge.”
Hurlbert also noted that Dietert turned himself in to police the day after the attack and gave a lengthy accounting of the assault even before getting an attorney.
He noted Dietert has shown remorse to authorities and to the victim’s family. He said he hoped that Lass, having presided over the Stockdale trial and hearing the evidence himself, would see the plea deal request in a new light.
Lass, along with District Court Chief Judge Terry Ruckriegle, have previously dashed the attorneys’ hopes for a deal because, as they said, it tied their hands in sentencing.
Lass has described how seriously he takes matters that involve the death of a person and, if it should come out in trial that Dietert’s actions leave him just as culpable as the other suspects, the court needs the freedom to arrive at an appropriate sentence.
But with furrowed brow, reading glasses tipped low on his nose and pursing his cheek with thumb and forefinger, Lass said Wednesday it was the first time he felt the attorneys had clearly articulated the reasoning and value behind the plea proposal.
Testimony of the victim’s family, however, struck a chord.
Jocelan Martell, Wieland’s mother, and Katie Wieland, the victim’s widow, addressed Lass saying they had confidence in the district attorney’s and the judge’s discretion on the matter.
The plea bargain seems, they said, the best option to pursue, although the sentence might not be enough.
“It doesn’t necessarily seem an appropriate punishment for what happened, but there’s not a lot of other options,” Katie Wieland said.
“I agree, his testimony will clarify issues. Knowing evidence was there for the last trial and it wasn’t used … I don’t know. I’d rather see him testify in the Robbins trial than have another trial and both people possibly getting off.”
Brandon Robbins is the third suspect in the death.
His attorney has filed a change of venue motion to move the trial, scheduled to begin June 8, to a different county, citing publicity in local media.
Lass ended the hearing saying he needed more time to weigh the matter.
“I still have feelings which are not too far off from the victims,” he said.
“Essentially, that is how our system of justice can agree to the proposed sentence in a case involving death. I really struggle with that. I expect to hear arguments on the legal theory of complicity. Regardless of the specific acts, by participating in certain ways, the defendant may still be equally liable. I’m really struggling with the fact that this suggests I do not have all the sentencing tools for a case involving death. These are things I’d like to think about further.”
Lass said he plans to rule on the plea deal by May 27 when Robbins is scheduled to appear again for a motions hearing. If the lawyers disagree, they’ll present their arguments at a June 2 hearing in Breckenridge.
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