No defendant ever has to take an offered plea agreement. In fact many prefer to take their chances with a jury trial. Today we present some of the worst cases we ever heard of defendants rolling the dice with a jury trial — and losing spectacularly.
At the casino, you’ve got to “know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” if you want to make it out with a profit. But in the high-stakes world of criminal justice, the currency is time behind bars. A defendant’s decision whether to take a plea or face a jury can be the riskiest bet of all.
Phillip Davis: An Extra 16 Years
Phillip Davis was a Miami Circuit Court Judge who had trouble following the law himself. In the early 1990’s, Davis first ran afoul of authorities when he was picked up in an FBI sting on Florida judges called Operation Court Broom. Davis got himself acquitted of bribery charges in 1995 – by blaming the misdeeds on a cocaine addiction.
Davis still had his freedom, but was disbarred from practicing law. His next act was to found Miami-Dade Resident College, an organization meant to provide social services for the underprivileged – including vocational training and counseling. But by 2005, authorities were after Davis again. They accused him of fraud and embezzlement, saying that he diverted grants from the State into his own pockets through the use of various shell companies.
It was a complex case, and Davis had avoided serious charges once before, so prosecutors were willing to work out a deal. Davis turned down their offer featuring a 4-year prison term. This time, the jury was not so understanding: Davis was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 20 years in the same courthouse in which he used to preside.
Anthony Maurice Riggins: An Extra 18 Years
One wouldn’t call 34-year-old Anthony Maurice Riggins a master criminal – or a shrewd negotiator. On May 7 2008, Riggins thought he’d pick up a little spending money by robbing two Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, motels. His first attempt at the Sea Palms went as well as could be expected: Riggins appeared to have a gun when he pulled off the first heist. His second stop that night at the Holiday Sand North Motel was a bust – he didn’t get any money there. A double bust really, because shortly after he left the second motel, Riggins was picked up by police in a nearby parking lot.
Riggins was charged with armed robbery and attempted armed robbery – charges that could have netted him a full 50 years in jail. Prosecutors decided to offer Riggins a 12-year stretch if he pleaded guilty to both charges. Riggins turned them down flat.
Riggins’ jury trial, however, didn’t go so well for him. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years behind bars. In South Carolina, convicted criminals like Riggins must serve at least 85% of their sentence. Riggins, who might have gone free in just 12 years, Riggins won’t be on the loose again for more than twice that time: 25 and a half years at the least.
Amber Hilberling: An Extra 20 Years
In a case of young love gone way wrong, Amber Hilberling stood accused of pushing her husband Josh out the window of their 25th floor apartment in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He landed on the 8th floor parking garage and died instantly.
The young couple (he was 23, she was 19 at the time) already had a son together, but their relationship was volatile – and when Josh fell to his death during a fight, prosecutors offered to make a deal rather than put the young widow on trial. The Tulsa County District Attorney’s office offered a 20-year sentence, with 13 of those years suspended – but Hilberling turned down the 7-year prison offer. Later, prosecutors sweetened their offer to 5 years in prison plus 15 years probation. Instead, Hilberling opted for a trial by jury.
On March 18, 2013, a Tulsa jury found Amber Hilberling guilty of second-degree murder, and recommended at 25-year prison term, which the trial judge affirmed.
In the State’s sentencing memorandum, prosecutors pointed to a conversation Amber had with her grandmother in which she admitted “she pushed Joshua into the wall and he fell and the wall was windows that’s why he fell out of it.” The prosecution noted the terror the victim must have felt at the time: “Josh had seventeen stories to contemplate what was occurring.”
Now the 21-year-old Hilberling will miss her son Levi’s entire childhood. The boy was just eighteen months old at the time of her sentencing. Assuming, she serves her full term (including time served pre-trial), Levi will be 22 when his mother is released.
Tim Casner: An Extra 23 Years
For years, Tim Casner had a good thing going and thought he’d get away with it. Casner used his Prescott, Arizon0a, based house-painting company to case potential burglary targets. Ultimately police noticed the pattern of minor thefts at homes Casner either painted or gave estimates.
In 1998, Casner faced nine charges of burglary and two theft charges. The combined sentences if served consecutively reached well over a century of prison time, and yet prosecutor’s realized their case wasn’t airtight – there was no physical evidence of Casner’s thievery. They offered a deal in which Casner would serve just three years.
Of course, Casner turned it down and pleaded not guilty. The jury turned his case down, convicting him on eight counts altogether. Casner was sentenced to 26 years behind bars. In June, Casner’s appeal to Arizona’s Clemency Board was rejected by a 4-1 margin, so the wayward painter will have his full term to second-guess himself.
Willie Smith Ward: An Extra 30 Years
A plea deal of 20 years in prison for stealing a $35 rack of baby-back ribs doesn’t seem like a great deal. But when Willie Smith Ward turned it down, he might not have realized that previous convictions for burglary, attempted robbery, aggravated assault and a host of other crimes would lead a Waco, Texas, jury to recommend that he be sentenced as a habitual criminal. Ward ended up with a 50-year prison sentence.
Back in September 2011, Ward tucked a rack of ribs under his shirt and left the H-E-B store without paying. When a store employee confronted Ward in the parking lot, the ribs fell down to the ground. What started out as a minor shoplifting charge turned into a felony when the employee asked what else he had up his sleeve. “I got a knife,” Ward said before running away. Ward must serve a quarter of his sentence before he’s eligible for parole.
Stanley Eckard: An Extra 30 Years
Stanley Eckard had made some pretty bad decisions in his life. In June 2010, Stanley tried to sabotage a relationship between his younger brother Sean and a girl Sean was dating. Stanley sent text messages from Sean’s phone trying to break them up. That led to a physical altercation in which Stanley choked his brother. When the two men tussled to the ground, Sean hit his head and fractured his skull. Instead of calling police, Stanley buried his brother’s corpse in the backyard of the family’s Spring Hill, Florida, home.
Two days later, father Sam Eckard dug up Sean’s body after he noticed Stanley burying something. Police were notified and Stanley was arrested. Prosecutors offered Stanley Eckard a 20-year sentence to plead to the killing, but the young man refused. Three years later, the 24-year-old Eckard was convicted of second-degree murder, a crime that carries 16 years to life behind bars.
Stanley turned down the plea deal, but his mother made her own plea for leniency at sentencing. “I don’t know exactly what to do or say, except to make a plea to the court to please recognize that this is an accident for which we all suffer deeply,” Donna Eckard told Judge Anthony Tatti. But Judge Tatti was unmoved: he sentenced Stanley Eckard to 50 years in prison for his brother’s murder.
Ricardo Woods: An Extra 31 Years
Ricardo Woods of Cincinnati, Ohio, already had a long criminal record including attempted murder and cocaine trafficking when he was accused of the 2010 shooting of David Chandler. Woods had already spent more than 10 years behind bars, so when prosecutors offered him a chance to plead guilty for a 5-year sentence, he probably should have jumped at the deal.
Instead Woods chose to try his luck in front of a jury. The key witnesses against him were a jailhouse snitch who told authorities Woods shot at Chandler’s car over a $400 drug debt – and the murder victim himself. The bullet wounds to Chandler’s face and neck had left him paralyzed for two weeks until he passed away. During that time, investigators videotaped an interview with Chandler in which he identified Woods as his assailant by blinking three times when detectives showed him the letter “O,” which was Woods’ street name.
A jury believed the unusual prosecution witnesses and convicted Woods of murder and felonious assault for the shooting in May. Then on June 20, 2013, Woods was brought back to court for sentencing where Judge Beth Myers hit him with a 36-year prison term. With all that time on his hands, Woods plans to roll the dice once more — this time in appeals court, where his lawyers plan to question the admissibility of the victim’s eye-blink testimony that sealed his fate.