The U.S. Constitution may guarantee speedy and public trials, but few of those charged with crimes ever face a jury. People accused of crimes often strike a deal with prosecutors.
Indeed, the top prosecutors in counties along the Wasatch Front say upward of 90 percent of cases are decided by agreement, not trial.Longtime public defender Steve Laker said he believes 95 percent of the cases handled by the Weber County Public Defender's office are settled with plea agreements before they come to trial.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Neal Gunnarson, however, refuses to use the term "bargain."
"I say plea disposition, because I don't think pleading to a felony is ever a bargain," Gunnarson said.
Statewide, the number of deals isn't tracked. But figures do show that for 1997, only 15 percent of the felony charges filed had a change in their severity, indicating when prosecutors do negotiate, they're not giving up a whole lot.
In many cases, especially illegal drug trafficking, two first-degree felonies are often dismissed in favor of the defendant pleading to the remaining two first-degree felony charges.
In other cases, defendants plead "straight up" to the charges as long as the prosecution stands silent on sentencing.
The negotiations happen in the most mundane cases and in the headline-grabbers where everyone wants to know the facts.
Ogden resident Jason Brett Higgins, for example, faced multiple trials on 22 first-degree felony charges in nine rape cases.
Instead, he withdrew his not guilty pleas in December and was sentenced earlier this month on nine charges, three of which were amended to second-degree felony counts of forcible sexual abuse.
While three of the charges don't reflect the reality of what Higgins did, Weber County Attorney Mark DeCaria said he believes, in the end, the sentence of 30 years to life was appropriate.
If any of the victims had rejected the negotiation, DeCaria said the case would have gone to trial.
DeCaria said plea agreements, despite public criticism, often come about with victims in mind.
Three years ago, Fred Hansen shot and killed his wife and step-daughter.
DeCaria said no one was anxious to take Hansen to trial on the homicides because it would mean his 10-year-old daughter, who witnessed the Ogden killings, would have to testify against her father.
Hansen agreed to plead "straight up" to the charges in return for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Negotiations also happen when there are evidence problems in cases but still enough proof a criminal act was committed.
"It certainly doesn't mean the crime didn't happen. It tests our ability to make proof of the crime. It becomes a compromise, where you walk a fine line."
Judges can reject plea agreements and go against the prosecutors' recommended sentences.
Second District Judge Michael Lyon said that the point of sentencing is to punish the offender, protect and compensate the victim and society, and reduce the likelihood of another offense.
"You can achieve those objectives through accepting a plea to a lesser charge and in the process, you have avoided the protracted and costly trial."
Lyon concedes there is some public mistrust of plea agreements, but he feels it is unwarranted.
"The public may be suspicious of plea bargaining as a gimmick to get out of work or to avoid the responsibility of prosecuting, but in my opinion just the opposite is true," Lyon said. "I have not seen any abuses in our community. The cases that need to be prosecuted and tried are."