Wednesday, Dec. 15, 1999 | 10:15 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- The Nevada Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, has ruled that District Judge Jeffrey Sobel "improperly coerced" a defendant to accept a plea bargain on an attempted sexual assault charge.
The court Tuesday said Kenneth Standley, who received a nine-year prison sentence, should be allowed to withdraw his plea, in which the defendant is pronounced guilty by the judge.
"A plea of guilty must be the result of an informed and voluntary decision, not the product of coercion," said the court.
At the hearing in Las Vegas in December 1993, Judge Sobel told Standley that he had 22 years experience as a defense lawyer and many of his clients had trouble admitting they had done wrong. Sobel said, "And I had many clients who, when they first started, would not admit it. And over a period of time, realized that the legal system worked better if they admitted that they had made a mistake."
The court said Sobel "effectively convinced appellant (Standley) to accept the plea offer through lengthy exposition," referring to the extended comments made by the judge to the defendant.
It said Standley "had good reason to fear offending the judge if he declined because the same judge would have presided over the trial, and if the trial resulted in a conviction, the judge would have determined the appropriate sentence."
Although Standley acknowledged later that his plea was freely and voluntarily given, the court said the records shows the judge induced him to accept the plea offer. It said the constitution does not forbid participation by the judge in plea negotiations, but the jurist can't be "improperly coercive."
Justices William Maupin and Deborah Agosti dissented, saying the comments by Sobel may have been ill-advised, but they were "only a candid assessment of the substantial benefits of a negotiated settlement." They said the statements of Sobel did not amount to coercion.