Brandon Ball, a man charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of a Mobile teenager, pled guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter in the Mobile County Circuit Court on Monday. Under the terms of the plea arrangement, Ball was given a 15-year suspended sentence and was able to go home the same day. Prosecutors also agreed to drop an assault charge in connection with the shooting. Ball had been in jail on the charges since his arrest, and now begins five years of probation with his release from custody.
The charges stem from an incident that occurred on March 15. Ball confronted the victim, 16-year-old Eric Williams, at a convenience store, accusing him of stealing a necklace. The necklace belonged to Ball’s friend Labarron Turner, who had gotten the necklace two years earlier when his brother died. Later that day, Ball arrived at the victim’s house and again confronted him about the necklace. At about the same time, Turner pulled up in a different vehicle and began firing rounds from an SKS semiautomatic rifle at Williams. According to authorities, 14 bullets hit the victim.
Prosecutors originally charged Ball with murder, alleging that he aided and abetted the shooting by leading Turner to the house. Some witnesses told police that Ball left in the same car Turner was in. Ball disputed these allegations, denying that he knew his friend planned to shoot the victim. However, without the plea deal, trial would have been risky. Had he been convicted, he faced a possible life prison sentence. Turner received 35 years for the shooting.
It may seem disparate that a defendant facing a possible life term in prison is able to reach a plea deal that allows him to go home with only probation. Plea bargaining is a huge part of the criminal justice system, and enables the courts to process the overwhelming number of criminal defendants in a swift and efficient manner. By allowing defendants to plead to a charge in exchange for a fixed sentence, the State is able to avoid the enormous costs and delays of taking each accused person to trial. In exchange for sparing the State the expense of trial, a defendant is often guaranteed a much lower sentence than he could expect if he was convicted after a trial. Of course, any agreement is subject to the court’s ultimate approval.
The plea bargaining system is not without its critics. Some point out that it effectively creates what is known as a “fair trial tax.” This is to suggest that a defendant who decides not to plead guilty and is tried and convicted often receives a much harsher punishment at sentencing than he would have if he had pled before trial. Empirical evidence of actual sentences tends to support this observation, although a judge of course could not constitutionally cite the defendant’s exercise of a right to trial as reason for the heightened sentence. Nevertheless, the perceived “fair trial tax” deters many defendants from proceeding to trial and bolsters the State’s high conviction rates.