The vast majority of criminal cases in Palm Beach County don’t end with a trial, despite what one may see on television and in the movies. Most cases resolve through plea bargaining, a kind of negotiation that takes place between the prosecution and the defense, often outside of the courtroom setting. Once both the State and Defense come to an agreement, that agreement must be approved by the presiding judge. This is known as a plea colloquy, where the judge asks the defendant if he/she understands the plea and wants to accept it. A negotiated plea may result in a person pleading guilty to lesser charges, or sometimes only one or two charges when he/she is initially charged with numerous crimes.
When a person enters into a negotiated plea with the prosecution, an interesting issue sometimes arises when a crime victim doesn’t agree with the sentence. In Florida, a crime victim has certain rights which are protected by the Florida Constitution. This is known as the Victim’s Bill of Rights, which states that victims “are entitled to the right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all crucial stages of criminal proceedings, to the extent that these rights do not interfere with the constitutional rights of the accused.” However, crime victims are not entitled to decide whether or not a plea agreement is acceptable to them. In other words, the victims of crimes or their family members do not get to veto a plea and force a case to go to trial.
This is precisely what happened last Friday in the case of Paul Merhige, who was accused of killing multiple family members in a Jupiter shooting which occurred on Thanksgiving Day 2009. Merhige plead guilty when the prosecution agreed not to seek the death penalty and Merhige was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences. However, the father of Merhige’s six-year-old victim objected. He spoke out during the plea hearing, begging the judge and prosecutors not to go through with the plea. The Judge accepted the plea and sentenced Merhige despite his requests.
The fact is, in the criminal system, it is the state of Florida, not the victim or the victim’s family, who prosecutes offenses. And it is up to the state to decide who to prosecute, what crime to charge, and ultimately what plea offer to extend. While the victims get to be heard, they ultimately do not get to make the decision.