When Madisonville resident Kevin Wayne Soto didn't show up to court last Thursday to finalize a plea agreement in which he was slated to receive probation, District Judge Rick Davis opted instead to give him a life sentence.
But Soto's defense attorney, Craig Greaves, is arguing that the judge's decision isn't legal. Greaves since has filed a letter with Davis' office asking that the decision be rescinded.
Davis is on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment. However, it is rare for a judge to comment on a case that still could be pending.
Soto was arrested in Bryan in November when a Kroger manager told police the 37-year-old had tried to cash a fake check. During a subsequent search of the man, police found two other checks and 7.3 grams of crystal methamphetamine, according to court documents.
The amount of drugs was enough to charge him with a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 99 years or life in prison.
But Soto, a drug addict, wasn't the one who printed the checks, Greaves said. He was offered methamphetamine and money from someone in North Zulch in exchange for attempting to cash the forged checks, the attorney said.
Prosecutors offered the defendant a plea agreement for 10 years' probation and 120 days in jail in exchange for testimony against those responsible for printing the checks. In response to the offer, Soto, who already was in jail, entered a guilty plea in April. He served the 120 days and agreed to testify.
So when Davis scheduled a sentencing hearing for May, then again for last week, all Soto had to do was show up to have the plea agreement approved by the judge.
But Soto started using meth again, and no one - not even his wife - had seen him in weeks, Greaves said Wednesday. When he missed the hearing, one option would have been to charge him with failure to appear, a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and take care of the plea agreement at another time.
But Davis instead decided to proceed with the hearing, busting the original plea agreement and handing down the life sentence.
"He can't do that," Greaves said Wednesday, adding that he has had time to calm down in the week since the decision was announced. "Maybe [Judge Davis] just had a bad day. I don't know. But I got pretty upset, yelled and things like that."
While Soto has faced misdemeanor charges in the past, his record includes only one other felony, burglary. Greaves said the life sentence seems heavy-handed, given that Soto has never been arrested for a violent offense.
"He hasn't been legally sentenced, in my opinion," Greaves added. "I think it's pretty cut-and-dried."
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley - author of The Perfect Plea, a textbook distributed to all prosecutors in Texas - agreed with Greaves when contacted Wednesday by The Eagle. Considered an expert on the subject, Bradley also conducts training sessions on plea agreements for new prosecutors every six months.
While it is legal for a judge to continue with a sentencing hearing if a defendant skips town in the middle of a trial, plea agreements are a whole other matter, he said.
"It won't be enforceable," he said. "I suppose it's a little more eye-catching to give him that life sentence, but it's not a life sentence anybody's going to serve."
If a judge does decide to reject a plea agreement reached by the prosecution and defense, deciding that it is too lenient, the defendant must be given an opportunity to withdraw his or her guilty plea, Bradley explained.
Technically, Soto could tell the judge once he is apprehended that he wants to keep the guilty plea and accept the life sentence - but that doesn't seem very realistic, Bradley said.
Sentences in several similar cases have been overturned by appellate courts, he said.
In fact, one such case involved a ruling by Davis' predecessor in the 272nd District Court, Judge John Delaney. In 1993, Delaney decided to give Kelvin Thurman the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for burglary of a motor vehicle after he failed to show up for a previous sentencing hearing in which he was set to receive six years as part of a plea agreement.
"The court did not give Thurman an opportunity to withdraw his plea of nolo contendere when the court decided not to accept the plea bargain agreement, as it was required to do in that circumstance," Sixth Court of Appeals Justice William Cornelius wrote in the ruling.
"The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the trial court with instructions to either enforce the plea bargain as made by the parties, or alternatively, allow Thurman to withdraw his plea."
Once the Soto sentence is reversed, Greaves said, he will consider requesting that Davis be recused from the case. If his client now decides to plead not guilty and the case goes to trial, he already knows how Davis feels about Soto, he said.
District Attorney Bradley suggested a similar course of action.
"I think [Davis has] expressed himself very clearly," Bradley said. "You've got to sometimes exercise a little more restraint for the appearance of impartiality."