As reported in the St. Petersburg Times last week, Phillip J. Peterson and his attorney Bjorn Brunvand of this office reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in the midst of his trial for second-degree murder. Peterson was accused of shooting and killing Jimmy Lee “Tank” Adams at the Citrus Grove Apartments in St. Petersburg in August 2007.
The trial had begun and prosecutors had called several witnesses to the stand. But rather than let the case go to the jury for deliberation, prosecutors decided to reduced the charges against Peterson from second-degree murder to manslaughter. If he had been convicted of second-degree murder, Peterson faced a life sentence. By pleading guilty to manslaughter, he received a 20-year prison sentence.
In order to have convicted Peterson of second-degree murder, the state would have been required to proved that he killed Adams “by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual”. A “premeditated design to kill” means that there was a conscious decision to kill. The decision must be present in the accused’s mind at the time the act was committed but doesn’t necessarily require a long thought-process or planning period.
To prove that Peterson committed manslaughter, on the other hand, prosecutors were required to show that Adams was killed as a result Peterson’s culpable negligence. More than mere negligence, culpable negligence is conduct which shows a gross and careless disregard for the safety and welfare of another person. The negligence must be flagrant.
Reasons for plea agreements will vary for both the prosecution and the defense on a case-by-case basis. In general, plea agreements allow each side to obtain a certain resolution rather than continue to risk an extreme result. Plea agreements often involve lesser charges and/or lesser sentences than originally charged. It is always advisable to seek the assistance of experienced defense counsel in considering any plea offer from the State.