Was Federal Criminal Court Judge’s Harsh Sentence For Abhorrent Act a Good Idea?

I’m often asked, “How can you defend those people?” My response includes, amongst other things, “My job is to get the best possible outcome under challenging circumstances.” I further explain that just because I’m representing someone does not mean that I like what they did. In fact, in some cases, I am absolutely repulsed by what they did. Nevertheless, the system doesn’t work unless every defendant has competent council by their side representing them.

One case that I discussed this week on “Dr. Drew On Call” on CNN’s sister station, Headline News (HLN), involved some criminal acts that left me shaking my head in disgust (in spite my daily efforts not to be judgmental). That being said, I applaud their defense lawyer, as I would in all criminal cases, for doing their job, as challenging as that might be at times.

The reason why I am writing about this case has little to do with what the defendants did. Rather, it has everything to do with what the judge did, which was applauded by many. I felt a little differently.

The case involved an Oviedo, Florida woman who chose to make child pornography with her husband. For more than a year, they sent the homemade video to a man they knew. The gross part about it was that she involved her two children in the abhorrent acts. The woman, Sarah Adleta and her husband, Jonathan Adleta, apparently made having sex with their two children, one of them 4 years old, a regular part of their parenting plan. Even after the two divorced, they continued this sick behavior with their kids.

Investigators discovered that the couple’s daughter had never been potty-trained, displayed “sexualized behaviors,” and had the developmental level of an 18-month old. The primary reason why the mother pled guilty in federal court was the fact that she confessed to FBI agents precisely what she had done.

In May, she pleaded guilty and then testified against her ex-husband during his trial. She alleged at his trial that her ex, who was a Marine who served in Afghanistan, required “daddy-daughter sex” a condition precedent of getting married. The woman explained to jurors during her ex-husband’s trial that she went along with the disturbing acts because she believed that in order to stay with him, she had to participate.

At her sentencing, Adleta expressed remorse, arguing passionately that her husband manipulated her. Her own father emotionally requested that the judge give her daughter, “the maximum sentence possible.” Prosecutors requested that she be sentenced to the “low end of the guidelines,” which was 27 years for both of the counts, to run concurrent (meaning at the same time, for a total sentence of 27 years). Rejecting the prosecutor’s recommendation, U.S. District Judge Roy B. Dalton Jr. sentenced her to 27 years in federal prison for each of the two counts, to be served consecutively. That means her total sentence is 54 years in prison.

So, now you’re wondering, “What’s your beef with the judge?” In light of the pre-meditated and abhorrent nature of her actions, 54 years may sound like an appropriate sentence. Well, it may be. By no means am I painting signs in preparations for a rally in support of this woman.

What I don’t typically like to see are judges who reject the sentencing recommendations by prosecutors. I practice in federal court quite often and in order to facilitate plea bargains, as opposed to trials, plea agreements are routinely made between the parties. Those plea agreements are extremely necessary because without the benefits afforded in those agreements, defendants would opt instead for trials. If all, or even a majority of defendants went to trial, the system would collapse. Plea bargains, which are reached in over 90% of cases in both state and federal courts, are necessary to keep the overburdened criminal justice system moving along as efficiently as possible.

While all parties to the criminal case are aware that the judge may not go along with the agreement, the judge typically does. The reason why is because if judges frequently didn’t go along with prosecutor’s recommendations, then it would be difficult and sometimes impossible to get defendants to plead guilty as opposed to going to trial.

In this case, prosecutors were most familiar with the facts and circumstances surrounding Adleta’s crimes. Before extending a plea agreement, they analyzed all factors, including her cooperation in her husband’s case, her remorse, etc. and determined that 27 years was appropriate. The judge believed otherwise, which is his personal and legal right. The problem is that future defendants, especially ones in his courtroom, may believe they’re better off going to trial. They also may think there’s no benefit to cooperating with the Government. Citing Adleta’s outcome, I’m confident that there are many defendants questioning the benefit of giving up their cherished right to go to trial, if they’re just going to get “maxed out” after a plea.

Again, I’m not opposed to this woman receiving a significant prison term for the abhorrent acts she undertook. I just hope that this judge’s actions, in not following the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendations in this particular case, was more of an exception rather than the rule in his courtroom.