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Oregon Supreme Ct - July 13, 2017

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by: Sara Werboff • July 14, 2017 • no comments

State Not Permitted to Prosecute Defendant for Murder when Defendant Pleaded Guilty to Assault and Plea Agreement was Silent as to Risk of Additional Prosecution

The court affirms the trial court’s dismissal of a murder prosecution, where defendant pleaded guilty to assaulting the victim, the victim later died of his injuries, and the state was aware that the victim might die but the plea agreement was silent as to the risk of additional prosecution. The court decides this case relying on contract principles, as viewed against the backdrop of a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights. The court concludes that a “contractual default rule” fills the gap in the plea agreement and prevents defendant’s reprosecution.

Defendant and an accomplice assaulted the victim. The victim was severely injured and was eventually sent to a long-term care facility with significant brain injuries. Defendant entered a plea to the assault and was sentenced to 120 months of incarceration. The plea agreement did not address any contingency should the victim die and the parties never discussed that contingency. Defendant’s accomplice went to trial and defendant testified at that trial, taking the blame for the assault. The accomplice was also convicted of the assault. Six months after defendant’s guilty plea, the victim died from his injuries and the state charged defendant with murder. Defendant moved to dismiss and the trial court granted that motion, ruling that the state was required to affirmatively reserve the right to bring future charges.

The court agrees with the trial court and with defendant. A contractual default rule or “gap-filler” is required when 1) the victim’s death is reasonably foreseeable to the prosecutor, and 2) the plea agreement does not address the subject of reprosecution in the event of the victim’s death and arose from negotiations that also did not address that subject. The default rule requires the state, who is in the best position to know whether the victim might die, to disclose that it may reprosecute or lose the ability to do so. The rule takes into account that defendant is waiving important constitutional rights by pleading guilty and his waiver of those rights must be knowing.

State v. King, 361 Or 646 (2017) (Nakamoto, J.)