Sunday, December 14, 2008

Life Sentence has Benefits, Lawyers Say

An article in today's Citizens' Voice reports... when Joseph Kerekes stood before a judge last week and pleaded guilty to murder, he assured himself of a life in prison rather than risk being sentenced to death if he went to trial.

Luzerne County Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. summed up the finality of his plea: “Mr. Kerekes, you’re essentially giving up your life in society as you know it. In an instant, you will not be a free man for the rest of your life.”

It’s a monumental decision to make — accept a life sentence without a trial or put your life in the hands of a jury.

Some prominent local defense attorneys — none affiliated with the Kerekes plea — say there are benefits in taking such a plea, notably avoiding the misery of death row and possible execution. Life-term prisoners at least get to eat, exercise and associate with general population inmates, along with being able to work and take educational courses, they say. Death row inmates spend 23 hours per day in solitary confinement.

Although he won’t face death or death row, Kerekes’ plea ensures the 34-year-old will never see the outside world again. He will die in jail for his role in the slaying of rival gay pornography producer Bryan Kocis of Dallas Township.

“It’s the hardest thing we do — to advise a client to spend the rest of his life in prison,” said Basil Russin, Luzerne County’s chief public defender. “You have to say, ‘You have this defense, but a jury is not going to buy that defense. You could take the chance, but this is not going to fly and you’re going to lose and end up on death row.’”

Kerekes’ attorneys are barred from publicly speaking about the case because of a court-imposed gag order, so it’s not clear why he chose to plea. At last week’s guilty plea, attorneys said Kerekes implicated his romantic partner and co-defendant, Harlow Cuadra, 27, as the one who physically stabbed and slashed Kocis to death. But he admitted his role in the plot to travel to Luzerne County from Virginia Beach, Va. to “eliminate and kill” Kocis.

Cuadra did not accept a plea and his death penalty trial is expected to begin early next year.

Attorney Demetrius Fannick, who has won acquittals for several high-profile murder suspects, most notably Hugo Selenski, and also has advised clients to take such pleas, said the specifics of each case differ, but the importance does not.

“It’s a daunting task to have that responsibility to defend someone in that situation. There aren’t any higher stakes,” he said. “You advise them of the good points and bad points of their defense. Usually one outweighs the other. At the end of the day, the decision to plead guilty or proceed to trial rests with the defendant. It’s his life and his choice.”

Fannick said some clients would rather risk the death penalty than not giving themselves a chance at acquittal or a lesser sentence than life.

“Some don’t view the death penalty as any deterrent at all. They say, ‘If I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I might as well get the death penalty and die. I might as well take a chance (at trial),’” he says.

Attorney Al Flora Jr. has been at the forefront of the longest death penalty saga in county history regarding the death sentence of mass murderer George Banks. He has visited Banks numerous times on death row and has developed a breadth of knowledge to advise clients on their best option.

“Death row is pretty tough. You’re in solitary and have an hour a day for exercise. It’s a tough life. Whereas when you’re just doing life, assuming you’re not a problem, you’ll be out in general population,” he said.

Deciding whether to plea is a lengthy process in which you spend hours analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the case, along with aggravating and mitigating circumstances in a defendant’s life that are considered in a death penalty phase, Flora said.

“It’s not an easy thing taking a defendant through the process in capital murder cases. It comes down to the decision of the defendant. That’s why in cases like this (Kerekes), Judge Olszewski went through a lengthy guilty plea colloquy to make sure the plea is voluntarily entered, that no one forced him, that he understands the charges he’s pleading to. It’s very difficult any time you’re representing a client facing the death penalty.”