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Thomas v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

January 5, 2018

STATE OF ALASKA, Respondent.

         Petition for Review from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District No. 3AN-14-8238 CR, Anchorage, Kevin M. Saxby, Judge.

          Appearances: Michael T. Schwaiger, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Petitioner.

          Tamara E. De Lucia, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Respondent.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg, Judges.


          ALLARD Judge.

         This petition for review involves a superior court's rejection of a plea agreement in a murder case. For the reasons explained in this opinion, we grant the petition and vacate the superior court's decision. On remand, we direct the superior court to reconsider the plea agreement with the guidance provided here.

         Underlying facts and procedural history

         In 2014, David Joseph Thomas was indicted for first- and second-degree murder for the death of his girlfriend, Linda Bower. Thomas confessed that he had killed Bower-first to his brother and then separately to the police, after turning himself in to custody.

         According to the parties' briefing and the presentence report, Thomas was heavily intoxicated at the time of the murder. Thomas reported having ingested a large amount of vodka and over-the-counter medication prior to taking Bower to his house to watch movies. He remembered little of what happened thereafter, although he recalled waking to find himself strangling Bower and then losing consciousness again. The next thing he remembered was waking up on the floor of his bedroom, with Bower lying unmoving on the bed. Thomas attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; then he vomited and again lost consciousness. After Thomas turned himself in, the police searched the residence; they found an empty bottle of vodka and vomit in Thomas's bedroom.

         Thomas accepted responsibility for killing Bower and reached a plea agreement with the State. Under the terms of this agreement, Thomas would plead guilty to second-degree murder and he would receive a sentence of 75 years' imprisonment with 25 years suspended (50 years to serve).

         At the time of Thomas's offense, the crime of second-degree murder carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of 99 years.[1] The crime of first-degree murder carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum sentence of 99 years.[2] In Page v. State, this Court announced a benchmark sentencing range of 20-30 years to serve for first felony offenders convicted of second-degree murder.[3] This benchmark range can be exceeded for good cause, [4] and the parties agreed that good cause existed here to exceed the Page benchmark.

         At the change of plea hearing, the victim's parents told the superior court that they thought Thomas's sentence under the plea agreement was improperly lenient. The parents were particularly opposed to the fact that the plea agreement did not contain a restriction on Thomas's eligibility to be considered by the Parole Board for release on discretionary parole. Under AS 33.16.090(b)(1), a defendant convicted of murder is eligible to be considered for discretionary parole after serving one-third of their active term of imprisonment.

         After hearing from the parents and the parties, the judge conditionally accepted Thomas's guilty plea. But the judge declared that he would defer his final decision on whether to accept the negotiated sentence until a presentence report was prepared.

         In a sentencing memorandum submitted to the court, the prosecutor explained the State's reasons for entering into the negotiated agreement. With regard to the level of the charge, the prosecutor explained that, given the evidence of Thomas's substantial intoxication, the State would have significant difficulty proving the specific intent necessary to convict Thomas of first-degree murder.[5] The prosecutor also noted that Thomas had accepted responsibility for the killing, and that he had turned himself in and confessed to the crime.

         With regard to the negotiated sentence, the prosecutor characterized the agreed-upon sentence - 75 years' imprisonment with 25 years suspended - as the equivalent of a first-degree murder sentence imposed for a second-degree murder conviction. The prosecutor also noted that Thomas's sentence of 50 years to serve far exceeded the Page benchmark range of 20-30 years.[6]

         The author of the presentence report agreed with the State that Thomas's substantial intoxication played a role in the crime and the author was critical of Thomas's failure to address his problems with substance abuse. The presentence investigator also noted, however, that Thomas's "grief, guilt, and remorse for his crime appear to be real, " and that Thomas "does not present as a criminally minded individual, but as a man who has committed a horrendous criminal act."

         At the sentencing hearing, Thomas and the State again explained why they believed that the court should accept the negotiated plea and sentence, and why they believed that the Chaney criteria were met by a sentence of 75 years with 25 years suspended in this case. The victim's parents reiterated their opposition to the negotiated sentence and their particular opposition to the fact that Thomas would be eligible for discretionary parole consideration after serving one-third of his sentence.

         The victim's parents also presented a memorial photo montage of the victim's life. This photo montage was set to music played and sung by the victim herself (the Beatles song, "Blackbird").

         At the conclusion of this hearing, the superior court judge rejected the negotiated sentence as too lenient. The judge's primary reason for rejecting the plea agreement appears to have been the absence of any restriction on Thomas's eligibility for discretionary parole consideration. The judge stated that, in his view, Thomas had intentionally killed his girlfriend, notwithstanding the evidence of his severe intoxication, and that Thomas was therefore guilty of the more serious crime of first-degree murder. The judge further declared that it would "cheapen the crime" if Thomas were eligible to apply for discretionary parole after serving only one-third of the 50-year active term of imprisonment provided for in the plea agreement. The judge also indicated his belief that Thomas should remain in prison until he "aged out" of criminal behavior. According to the judge, this "aging out" generally happened around 50 years of age.

         This petition followed.

         The various issues raised by the proceedings in this case

         The parties raise several significant legal issues in their pleadings to this Court. Chief among these issues is the scope of a trial court's authority to reject a plea agreement, as well as the standard that a trial court should employ when reviewing a negotiated plea agreement.

         The State asserts that the trial court's role in approving or disapproving a plea agreement is a limited one, circumscribed by considerations of separation of powers and the court's more limited knowledge of the case in comparison to the parties. The State further asserts that a trial court's assessment of whether an agreed-upon sentence is too lenient is akin to an appellate court's assessment of whether a sentence is "clearly mistaken."[7] That is, the trial court should limit its role to evaluating whether the agreed-upon sentence is within the permissible range of sentences that a reasonable judge could impose under the circumstances, rather than determining what the judge would impose in the first instance.[8] The State contends that, in this case, the sentence was well within that range of permissible sentences that a reasonable judge would impose, and the superior court therefore should have accepted the plea agreement.

         Thomas separately argues that the court failed to provide adequate reasons for its rejection of the negotiated sentence, and Thomas asserts that the court's analysis of the negotiated sentence reflects a flawed understanding of the Chaney criteria and the governing law on discretionary parole. Thomas also points to the court's failure to compare Thomas's case to the full range of conduct encompassed by the second-degree murder statute, ...

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