The appeal decided by the Colorado Court of Appeals today in favor of defendant Rachel A. Vickers involved a pedestrian and technical procedural issue which her exceptionally talented public defender managed to preserve for appeal. But, that isn’t why her case is interesting.
Her case is interesting because it exposes the very difficult and morally ambiguous issues that go into the plea bargaining process, in a case where under one version of the facts a vile crime was committed, and in another she did nothing wrong.The Facts
Here is how the appellate court describes the facts that presented then 17 year old Rachel A. Vickers:
On May 4, 2005, defendant was with a close friend at his apartment. According to defendant, the friend went to his room and when she went to check on him, he was sitting on his bed with a gun in his mouth. She tried “to hit the gun away with her hand when the gun discharged.” The friend died from a single gunshot wound to the mouth.
The Charges, the Plea and the Appeal
Ms. Vickers was charged as an adult under Colorado’s direct file statute with second degree murder and a crime of violence. She pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and first degree trespass.
She was sentenced as an adult to three years of community corrections.
Ms. Vickers screwed up in community corrections, faced resentencing to the Department of Corrections as an adult as a result, and the appellate court was faced with a technical question concerning whether the judge should have considered the possibility of sentencing her as a juvenile instead.
In the near future the same judge will face that issue again, because her lawyer when made a timely objection raising the issue based on a pending case in the Colorado Supreme Court.
This is a classic case of a situation that admits little middle ground.
The prosecutor’s decision to charge Ms. Vickers with second degree murder and a crime of violence makes clear that their theory of the case was the Ms. Vickers took hold of the gun and knowingly killed her friend.
If they had good reason to believe that this is what happened, a greatly reduced sentence shocks the conscience, but may have reflected a belief that the evidence for the facts as the prosecution believed the evidence to be was not rock solid. Or, the prosecutor may have believed that this was really an assisted suicide and overcharged in order to get leverage in the case as a matter of standard operating proceedure.
The facts described by Ms. Vickers, if true, are not a crime at all. Her story does not describe a grossly careless accident; it describes a failed, but heroic attempt to save a friend’s life. No reasonable jury that believed her story could find her guilty of any crime.
But, given a choice between an apparently light sentence on a relatively minor charge, and possibly spending her entire youth in prison on murder charges, based almost entirely upon whether a jury of her peers would believe her story when physical evidence would have been consistent with either theory, she chose not to roll the dice. Instead, she played it safe.
What motivated the prosecution to bring the charges? What made Ms. Vickers feel unsafe going to trial over those charges? We don’t know.
Maybe she felt guilty about somehow contributing to her friend’s suicidal mood in the first place. Maybe she didn’t trust the legal system as much as she should have trusted it. Maybe there was evidence that never got presented to a court that would have given her a motive to kill her friend.
The fairly lenient initial sentence to community corrections given to Ms. Vickers by the judge appears to reflect skepticism on the part of the judge about Ms. Vickers blameworthiness at all in the matter.
At any rate, plea bargains are generally final, and this case was no exception. No public record is ever going to resolve for the community whether Ms. Vickers was the murderess that the Jefferson County District Court alleged that she was, or whether she was an innocent failed hero. Unless those involved chose to waive legal privileges and customary secrecy, we will never know why the prosecutor pushed so hard, or why Ms. Vickers agreed to a compromise.
We have an adversarial system of criminal justice, and if the prosecution and the defense reach a deal, we generally don’t ask why they did it, as long as there is any conceivable connection between the crime agreed upon and the events the court is told about in public. By the time this case reached the judge, he had very little say in what happened next.
The same judge will consider this case again, guided by a decision of the Colorado Supreme Court made a few weeks after the sentence was handed down, and do what seems just at the time of resentencing. The question of guilt or innocence, and of guilt or innocence of what crime, will not be revisited. The People of the State of Colorado will have to endure an ambiguity that only Rachel A. Vickers can know the truth of, for sure, and given the way that traumatic events distort memories, a truth that she may not even know with perfect certainty herself.