In a highly unusual move, a federal judge in West Virginia has rejected a plea deal for a man accused of dealing heroin and fentanyl, arguing that “the secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime.”

In his 28-page ruling, the district judge for the southern district of West Virginia, Joseph R. Goodwin, notes the severity of the opiate epidemic in West Virginia, calling the state “ground zero” in a crisis that amounts to “a cancer that has grown and metastasized in the body politic of the United States.”

He argues that given this context, “the bright light of the jury trial deters crime, enhances respect for the law, educates the public, and reinforces their sense of safety much more than a contract entered into in the shadows of a private meeting in the prosecutor’s office.”

In criminal cases, prosecutors and defendants often enter into plea bargains to avoid a jury trial — the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense, guaranteeing a conviction for the prosecutor and eliminating the possibility of more serious charges for the defendant. While judges have the authority to reject these bargains, in practice they rarely do. In 2016, 97.3 percent of all federal criminal cases were resolved with a plea bargain, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Goodwin's ruling came as a shock to the prosecution and defense teams who had entered into the plea bargain in this case. “This is the first time anything like this has happened in 25 years” of practicing law, said Lex Coleman, a federal public defender for Charles York Walker Jr., the man at the center of the case.

Walker was indicted by a federal grand jury last September on three counts of distributing heroin, two counts of distributing fentanyl, and one count of “being a felon in possession of a firearm.”

Given the “cultural context [of] a rural state deeply wounded by and suffering from a plague of heroin and opioid addiction,” Goodwin argues that “the public has a high interest in the adjudication of heroin and opioid crimes such as these because of the severity of the crisis occurring in our state.”

He gives an impassioned defense of the role of the jury in serving this public interest:

The jury trial reveals the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot.
A jury trial tells a story. The jury members listening to the evidence come away with personally impactful information about the deadly and desperate heroin and opioid crisis existing in their community. They are educated in the process of performing their civic duty and are likely to communicate their experience in the courtroom to family members and friends.
Moreover, the attendant media attention that a jury trial occasions communicates to the community that such conduct is unlawful and that the law is upheld and enforced.

Some drug policy reform advocates are skeptical that more criminal trials will lead to better outcomes.

“Courtroom drama for the few in the room or the few who may follow via the media still doesn’t address the problem at hand — overdose prevention,” said Art Way, senior director for national criminal justice reform strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance.

“Goodwin is better off using his platform as a judge to both join forces with those intent on increasing access to community based treatment in WV and those willing to engage in aggressive public education concerning overdose,” he added.

Plea bargains have become so widespread in part because of a perception that they place a lighter load on an overburdened criminal justice system.

But Goodwin argues that this perception is outdated. The judge draws on federal data sources to illustrate that federal criminal trials have fallen precipitously even as the number of U.S. attorneys has grown dramatically.

“In [fiscal year] 1973,” he writes, “each federal prosecutor handled over eight criminal trials on average. By [fiscal year] 2016, the average number of criminal trials handled by each federal prosecutor plummeted to 0.29 trials.”

He traces similar trends among U.S. judges, concluding that “the courts are no longer overburdened. Federal prosecutors are no longer overworked.” Overreliance on plea bargains, Goodwin says, has “diminish[ed] the right of the people to participate in the administration of the criminal justice system to a near vanishing point.”

Coleman, Walker's lawyer, declined to comment on the specifics of this case. But he said that at the moment, Walker and his defense team are weighing their options for how to proceed.

“My twenty-two years of imposing long prison sentences for drug crimes persuades me that the effect of law enforcement on the supply side of the illegal drug market is insufficient to solve the heroin and opioid crisis at hand,” Goodwin wrote. Nevertheless, “the law is the law, and I am satisfied that enforcing the law through public adjudications focuses attention on the heroin and opioid crisis.”