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Court change seeks to accelerate proceedings

BY ANDREA MOORE amoore@paducahsun.com

A procedural change to accelerate court proceedings is being tested in McCracken Circuit Court. 

McCracken Chief Circuit Judge Craig Clymer is leading the way with Rule 7C, which limits a defendant to one pretrial conference and one chance to accept a plea deal.

Without Rule 7C, defendants can take last-minute deals that result in the cancellation of trials. Scheduling other court appearances in the vacant days is next to impossible, Clymer said.

"This is terrible for the court system because 100 or more inmates are being held on felony charges and they are missing out on trial dates," Clymer said.

Circuit Judge Tim Kaltenbach is also in favor of the rule change.

"We need to move dockets along," Kaltenbach said. "The loss of a trial date inconveniences witnesses and experts."

The new rule requires approval from the Kentucky Supreme Court before it can become permanent.

In considering the rule change, Clymer looked at the proposal from three perspectives: the defense, the prosecution and the court. He considered the defense's goals for the charge to be dismissed, making the prosecution prove its case, defending the accused's rights and affording the defendant a level playing field.

Clymer reasoned that the prosecution's ultimate goal is not opposite of the defense's.

"It is not to get a conviction but to seek justice," Clymer said. "The goal of the court is to protect the rights of the accused and the state, assuring both sides abide by the procedural, substantive, and ethical rules, with the ultimate goal being that justice is done."

Clymer concluded that a rule disallowing negotiated pleas after the pretrial conference does not sacrifice getting it right for getting it quickly.

Defense attorneys are still weighing in on the proposed rule change. Emily Roark, a McCracken County defense attorney, emphasized that she did understand the concern to keep the dockets moving but is worried that the new rule will harm the natural flow of how the criminal justice system works.

"My main concern as a criminal defense attorney is that my clients' rights are protected and that I have every single chance to fully investigate my client's case," Roark said. "Some of that does not happen until right up to trial and that is when you are fully prepared to negotiate."

Under the proposed rule, the commonwealth would have five business days prior to the pretrial conference to make an offer to the defendant in exchange for a plea of guilty. The commonwealth could also decline to make any offer.

Commonwealth Attorney Dan Boaz said the rule change would benefit everyone in the court system.

"The commonwealth is ready at the beginning of negotiations to give an offer," Boaz said.

The rule allows a defendant to plead guilty without a recommendation by the commonwealth at any time prior to the beginning of a trial. It also has a "good cause" exception allowing for requesting another pretrial conference and entering a guilty plea after a defendant rejects the commonwealth's offer.

Under the rule, a hearing would have to be held in both situations to determine whether or not good cause has been shown.

Clymer said that if a defendant declines to take the commonwealth's offer and chooses to enter a plea in open court without a deal in place, the court will consider the last offer extended. However, if the court determines that the defendant is using the open plea as a delay tactic, additional time may be added to the last offer, Clymer said.

Contact Andrea Moore, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8684.

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