Plea Deal Dispute Persists

Prosecutors, judge can’t agree on plea

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A Gila County judge is standing behind his decision to reject a restrictive plea deal negotiated by the Gila County Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors repeated their plea that Judge Peter Cahill accept a deal they offered Matthew Lee Cox. Prosecutors promised Cox he would get probation if he pleaded guilty to several felonies.

Cahill refused to reconsider the deal because it stripped away his discretion as well as taking away a valuable tool probation officers often use to ensure cooperation — offering the possibility of lowering a felony conviction to a misdemeanor.

Cox had agreed to plead to theft and possessing a forgery tool for forging several of his father’s checks and cashing them in Payson for $1,650 between August and September of 2012, according to court documents. A grand jury indicted him for theft and three counts of forgery.

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Peter Cahill, Superior Court judge

On Jan. 27, the prosecutors and Cox’s lawyer Ronald DeBrigida presented Cahill with a deal that required Cahill to suspend imposition of sentence and place Cox on probation, while designating his offenses as felonies.

Cahill said the court has had success when it could offer probationers a chance to earn misdemeanor designations for their crimes. So he rejected the plea, but left the issue open for discussion.

Later that day, counsel asked Cahill to reconsider.

A prosecutor once again argued for the plea deal, saying although Cox committed the crimes on several occasions, it still marked his first felony conviction.

Cahill again rejected the deal.

On Feb. 10, the parties addressed the issue again. Cox told Cahill he did not want to go to trial and asked Cahill to accept the plea agreement, including the felony designation.

Cox’s father, however, told Cahill he hoped his son could convert the felonies into misdemeanors if he did well on probation.

Cahill again rejected the plea, but left the matter open for reconsideration.

Prosecutors filed a motion for reconsideration that same day, saying Cahill had not given individualized consideration of the plea.

In his response, Cahill explained probation officers often get defendants to follow the terms of probation if they think their felony may be downgraded. “The court is reluctant to take away this tool from probation officers merely because this happens to be what the parties have agreed to — or, more accurately, just because a prosecutor wants it this way,” he said.

He argued that research shows keeping people convicted of one crime from committing another effectively cuts crime rates.

“Because rewards are more effective than punishments in achieving behavioral changes, providing incentives for behavior change through ‘negative reinforcement,’ such as relief from previously imposed sanctions or conditions, is more effective than threats of punishment, such as application of additional sanctions or conditions,” according to a study from the Crime and Justice Institute that Cahill cited.

Furthermore, Cahill said he had listened to all the arguments three times. He said he would have accepted the plea agreement if it allowed — but did not mandate — a felony designation.

“The court believes that with this defendant, this victim and these facts that the evidence-based approach, with a powerful incentive to succeed and comparatively reduced consequence of failure, that only a different agreement would be appropriate,” Cahill wrote.

Shawn Fuller, GCAO chief deputy attorney, did not respond to a request for comment prior to press time.

Cahill has balked at restrictive plea deals both with the current county attorney and the previous administration. Fuller and Bradley Beauchamp, current county attorney, have both said that the office is taking a hard stance on plea deals.

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