Plea bargain cuts prison time short BARGAIN

June 23, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson

Did Guy David Coffey get off easy for killing 38-year-old Rufus Johnson? At first glance the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Even though he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, Coffey, 26, never went to prison for the crime. Instead, he received a 28-year suspended sentence and five years' probation. And, he was let out of jail.

"It's an extremely rare sort of plea, very rare," said Sarah Reeder, who prosecuted Coffey. M. Gordon Tayback, Coffey's attorney, agreed: "I've never heard of it before, and I've never heard of it since . . . a second-degree murder case that was pleaded out for probation."

Coffey's case is about witnesses, those who came forward and those who didn't. And it is about the problems that arise when witnesses are as much a part of the criminal world as the defendants.

"One of the primary reasons we end up having plea bargains of this nature is that other people who saw the crime won't come forward," said Ms. Reeder. "We wouldn't face a Guy Coffey situation if other people had come forward."

Getting witnesses to come into court is perhaps the toughest problem police and prosecutors face, particularly if the case is a drug-related murder. Detectives tell of people gunned down in broad daylight, or in the midst of a crowd, yet none of the bystanders can recall what happened. Then there are cases where people call the homicide unit and detail the who, what, when, where and why of a murder -- but don't leave a name.

"There's a general reluctance in society as a whole to participate," said State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms. "I think what we have to do is understand that it is part of our civic responsibility. . . . It's not dishonorable simply to state what you saw, what you observed, or what you heard in relation to a criminal incident."

But those in the drug world and those who happen to observe its dealings have little use for civic responsibility. Mr. Johnson's July 29, 1988, slaying was drug-related. It happened in a dark alley, in the hours before dawn. Coffey, the man who killed Mr. Johnson, wasn't arrested until January 1989, when an eyewitness went to the police. But the witness, a known police informant, had a rap sheet and a matching set of convictions.

On Aug. 25, 1989, a city Circuit Court jury acquitted Coffey's co-defendant, Jerry Baugh, but couldn't reach a verdict on Coffey. Thirteen months had passed since Mr. Johnson's murder in the alley behind the 500 block of East 20th Street. Another six months passed before Coffey was tried again. By then the eyewitness had been convicted of two other crimes and a violation of probation.

He'd also gone to Mr. Tayback and signed an affidavit stating he was so intoxicated the night of the murder that he couldn't remember exactly what happened. As happens all too often, the state's case began to unravel. Mr. Tayback suggested a deal, a guilty plea and a long suspended sentence in exchange for Coffey's freedom. State prosecutors responded with an offer Coffey couldn't resist.

"Any time you offer a plea bargain you have to look at the strength of your case, and the first thing you have to do is look at your witnesses. How many are there and are they credible," said Ms. Reeder. "In this particular case, we had one witness with a long history of thefts and breaking and entering."

In a sense, the deal was a victory for both sides. The state won a guaranteed conviction.

"This way he is marked for what he did," said Ms. Reeder. "The family is satisfied because they wanted that guilty finding. They didn't want him getting away, too."

Coffey, who had spent more than a year in jail, won his freedom.

Ara Crowe, trial division chief in the state's attorney's office, called guilty pleas like Coffey's "deferred sentencing." One slip-up during the probationary period and the entire suspended sentence can be imposed. It's a gamble Coffey wanted, and one he may lose.

He was arrested May 30, 1990, for drug possession and convicted in June 1990. His one-year sentence has been stayed pending appeal. In December 1990, he was arrested on another drug charge and is awaiting trial in that case. These crimes could violate Coffey's probation, which means he could end up paying for the murder he committed.

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