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United States v. Stevens

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 6, 2017



          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         This case involves the prosecution of a young man who distributed heroin that was lethally laced with fentanyl. The victim overdosed and died. The Government entered into a plea agreement with terms that were highly favorable to the defendant without first consulting about the agreement with the victim's surviving family. I will reject the plea agreement on the ground that the Government has not respected the rights and interests of the victim's family.


         On the night of June 3, 2016, defendant Christopher Stevens arranged by text message to distribute heroin to a man in East Lyme, Connecticut. Shortly after 1:00 a.m., local police responded to a report of a car parked with its engine running just a short distance from the man's home. Inside the car police found the man and his 3-year-old son. The man was dead in the driver's seat from an overdose of heroin that had been laced with fentanyl. His 3-year-old child was fortunately unharmed.

         Law enforcement authorities later tracked the defendant down through the text messages found on the victim's phone. The defendant was arrested in July 2016, and he appeared before me more than six months later for the purpose of waiving indictment and entering a plea of guilty to a charge of distribution of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and § 841(b)(1)(C).

         At the guilty plea hearing there were no members of the victim's family present. When I inquired if the family had received notice and if they had any objection to the terms of the plea, the prosecutor seemed uncertain, explaining that he had recently assumed responsibility for this case from another prosecutor but that he believed the victim's family had received notification about the plea hearing from the victim-witness coordinator at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

         I asked the prosecutor: “Are they [the family] okay with the essential terms of the plea agreement, as far as you know? Any objections or concerns?” The prosecutor replied:

Not that I'm aware of, Your Honor. Nothing has been brought to my attention, at least at this juncture. Again, unfortunately, I did not necessarily speak, but again, our victim liaison people in our officer did not apprise me of any issues.

         I asked the prosecutor whether he had personally spoken with the victim's family, and he stated that he was “kind of new to this case” and that “I personally have not spoken with the family, but through our office victim liaison as well as with the [DEA] agent, the family is apprised of the nature of proceedings and that today was scheduled for the change of plea.”

         Although I proceeded with the plea hearing, I made clear that I would not accept the plea of guilty until learning more about what the victim's family's views were with respect to this plea. I entered an order requesting the prosecution to “file a statement describing how it has complied with its obligations under 18 U.S.C. § 3771 [the Crime Victims' Rights Act] and whether the victim's family and/or estate concurs with the proposed terms of the plea agreement.” Doc. #46.

         The Government soon filed a statement recounting that the parties had “reached and finalized a plea agreement” at some point during the week of January 9, 2017, that the Government contacted the Clerk's office on January 13, 2017, to request assignment of the case to a judge, and that the Court thereafter scheduled the plea hearing for January 18, 2017. Doc. #47 at 1.

         The Government's statement went on to describe the following concerning contacts with the mother of the victim-and most significantly disclosing for the first time that the victim's family did not agree with the terms of the plea:

Due to the short period of time elapsing from this assignment and the scheduled date which included an overlap with the Martin Luther King holiday, the Victim Witness Coordinator for the United States Attorney's Office, who had previously been in contact with the mother of the victim in this case during the post-arrest pendency of this matter, immediately contacted the mother by telephone to advise her that a plea proceeding had been scheduled. The Coordinator advised the mother of the date and time of the hearing and offered to meet with her to discuss the expected proceedings. When the mother was advised that the expected plea was to a charge of distribution of heroin, the mother expressed dissatisfaction that the death of her son was not charged. She further advised the Coordinator that she did not expect to attend the scheduled plea hearing, but that she might consider attending and speaking at the sentencing hearing.

Doc. #47 at 2 (emphasis added).

         According to the Government's statement, the coordinator later contacted the victim's mother after the plea hearing to advise her of the sentencing date and offered to meet with her. The victim's mother declined to meet, stating that “the renewal of this case signified by the entry of the plea was extremely painful to her” but that “she might decide to meet at a later date.” Ibid. The Government further stated it would continue to notify the victim's mother of any future court proceedings and “hope[s] to meet with the victim's mother to obtain a Victim Impact Statement prior to sentencing.” Id. at 2-3.


         Victims of crime have long had an uncertain role in the criminal justice process. Some centuries ago, victims were the criminal justice process-if a victim was criminally wronged, it fell upon the victim to mount a private prosecution for punishment and restitution. Times changed. By the Enlightenment era, crimes were conceptually re-conceived as public wrongs to be subject to public prosecution. Victims could not necessarily be trusted to prosecute public wrongs, and victims were relegated to pursuing civil tort remedies while trusting that the state would do justice for the criminal wrongs they suffered. Over the years, as the state acquired a monopoly over a professionalized public prosecution process, victims were increasingly marginalized without a clearly defined role.[1]

         By the 1980s, the pendulum began to swing back again in favor of victims, particularly as victims organized and reasserted themselves through a victims' rights movement. This in turn led to a groundswell of reforms at both the state and federal levels to confer formal protections or “rights” for victims.[2]

         In 2004, Congress consolidated and strengthened prior reform laws by means of enacting the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3771. The CVRA stemmed from a concern in part that “prosecutors and law enforcement officers too often ignored or too easily dismissed the legitimate interests of crime victims.” United States v. Turner, 367 F.Supp.2d 319, 322 (E.D.N.Y. 2005). The legislative history of the CVRA confirms that “[v]ictims of crime often do not feel their voices are heard or that their concerns are adequately addressed in the judicial process, ” and that “[m]any express frustration with a judicial system that affords many rights to the accused while giving few to the victim.” H.R. Rep. 108-77 at 3, 2005 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2274, 2276 (Sept. 30, 2004).

         In order to recognize the interests of victims in the criminal justice process, the CVRA enumerates ten basic ...

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