The legal arena often can be a theater of the unexpected.
Such was the case Monday when Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Michael Bluff threw a real plot twister into the Seth Collins’ case.
The Collins’ case has dragged through the local court system like a ball and chain since he was indicted on nearly two dozen charges stemming from a horrific multi-car, multi-victim vehicle crash three years ago this month.
Most expected Monday’s hearing to be the end of it all. The expectation was that Collins would be sentenced to somewhere between 21 and 25 years in prison, based on a plea agreement he at one time accepted and then later balked.
Throughout the legal journey of the Collins’ case, justice has been delayed time and again because of Collins himself. In the past year alone, he has demanded a new lawyer before deciding he would represent himself. He has accepted, and then withdrawn from a plea agreement. He has twice demanded that Judge Bluff be removed from the case. And he sought judicial relief through a Writ of Habeas Corpus.
But what no one saw coming Monday was that it was Bluff’s turn to do the unexpected and delay justice once again. Even the judge himself admitted that his decision to reject the plea agreement was something he never before had done in his 10 years on the bench.
At that point, the case against Collins became a game of chicken. Prosecutor Patti Wortman was the first not to blink. She said the state was willing to move forward with sentencing without the stipulation on sentencing terms. Wortman was one of many in the courtroom who no doubt interpreted Bluff’s action as a sign that a more-stiff sentence was in order for Collins.
The defense predictably wanted more time to talk this one over. They weren’t nearly so confident as was the state.
When a new hearing date, and possible sentencing, was scheduled for next week, the defense asked Bluff if he would share his feelings on what he believed was an appropriate sentencing range for Collins.
To which the judge referenced the original Adult Probation Department pre-sentence report that called for a sentence as low as 15 years.
At which point Prosecutor Wortman blinked. She quickly told the judge the state no longer wanted to proceed with sentencing without the agreed-upon stipulation in the plea agreement.
Now, we all have to wait and see what the next twist will be in this legal drama.
As for Judge Bluff, he no doubt has opened himself up for criticism in the court of public opinion. But his decision is not entirely unexpected. Two years ago when the state and defense were debating an appropriate plea agreement for Collins, Bluff said, “It’s a matter of whether he (Collins) should spend the rest of his life in prison or have some life left after he is released.” He continued that he was “sensitive to victim losses” and that “sometimes no amount of time in prison is enough,” but he also said he is sensitive to a natural life sentence for a man in his 40s.
Collins, for the record, is in his late 40s; 25 years in prison very well could be a life sentence for him.
It bears emphasis in this case that a judge’s job is not to make decisions based on how it will play out in the court of public opinion or the vitriolic world of social media. Nor is it a judge’s job to issue a sentence based on his like or dislike of a defendant. The outstanding former Coconino County Superior Court Judge William F. Garbarino was known to take a 5-minute break before sentencing defendants who had pushed his buttons the wrong way. He said that brief reprieve was a chance to remind himself that his job was to apply the law, and not respond to his feelings.
As for Collins, he has a strong support system of family and friends.
Outside of that, he does not fare well in the court of public opinion. He was driving on a suspended license when this crash occurred. He was under the influence of drugs. He has played the system by firing a respected lawyer that Bluff said had done a professional job in representing Collins. Collins, in turn, twice attempted to have Judge Bluff removed from the case. Monday, he told the judge he no longer wanted to be his own lawyer and asked for legal representation -- once again -- from the Public Defender’s Office.
In the end, it is Judge Bluff himself who is giving Collins the benefit of the doubt.
Stay tuned folks. This show is not over yet.
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