Defense Attorneys Ask Judge to Compel District Attorney’s Office to Adhere to Pre-Election Plea Agreement

Defense attorneys appeared in Bulloch County Superior Court Tuesday to ask a judge to enforce a plea agreement that was rescinded by the district attorney’s office days after the May 21 election. 

The request was filed by Robert Busbee who is co-counsel with Statesboro attorney Joey Cowart in a case against Hansel Echevarria. 

Echevarria was arrested by the Georgia Southern Police Department in December 2021 for an incident which allegedly occurred a little more than two years prior in September 2019.  He was indicted in 2022 on four felony charges including Aggravated Sexual Battery, Aggravated Sodomy, Criminal Attempt to Commit Rape, and Aggravated Assault. Echevarria spent roughly a month in jail from December 2021 until January 2022 when Judge Lovett Bennett set a bond. Since then, the case has been pending while a plea deal was brokered and attorneys awaited a court date.

Timeline Prompting Motion to Enforce Plea Agreement

The motion filed on May 29, 2024 states that the District Attorney’s Office made an offer through then-Assistant District Attorney Casey Blount on July 17, 2023 to include:

  • A dismissal of the Aggravated Sexual Battery, Aggravated Sodomy, and Criminal Attempt to Commit Rape charges
  • 10 years probation for the Aggravated Assault charge
  • A $5,000 fine
  • A handful of special conditions, such as no alcohol/drugs, no firearms, a 4th amendment waiver, a waiver of a Behavioral Incentive Date, and a handful of special conditions outlined for sex offenses.

On the same date, defense attorneys countered the offer and asked for the Aggravated Assault charge to be amended to False Imprisonment and for the district attorney’s office to agree that it would not object to First Offender treatment subject to the judge’s discretion.

One week later, on July 25, 2023, prosecutors disagreed with the amendment of the Aggravated Assault charge and said that while the state would object to a request by the defense for First Offender treatment, the state would not consider that a breach of the plea agreement – essentially leaving the decision up to the judge. 

For nearly a year, there were no court dates scheduled for the case.

On April 24, 2024, attorneys were notified of a court date set for May 28, 2024. 

Ahead of the court date, attorney Joey Cowart contacted the state and accepted the plea offer. Days later, on the scheduled May 28 court date, prosecutors informed defense attorneys that the office would not be honoring the plea agreement previously agreed to by both parties. They subsequently ordered the case to be presented for jury selection two days later on May 30.

Argument

The motion cites a host of legal precedent on the plea bargains by the Georgia Court of Appeals, the most recent of which was issued in 2023. The cases establish plea agreements as contracts under Georgia law. Additionally, the motion argued that the offer was binding on both parties and that the court was obligated to enforce the agreement.

Tuesday’s Hearing Before Judge Bennett

Attorney Joey Cowart, Assistant District Attorney Candace DeLoach, and former OJC ADA Casey Blount were sequestered during other witness testimony.

Testimony from Assistant District Attorney Who Negotiated the Plea

Busbee called Casey Blount to the stand as the first witness. Blount was the ADA handling the case at the time of the negotiated plea agreement, though he now works in another judicial circuit.

Blount testified that he was authorized to make plea offers in his capacity as an ADA and he handled the Echevarria case like he did many others. Referencing an email thread that documented the conversations between Busbee, Cowart, and Blount, Blount reiterated the timeline of the negotiations and how the agreement came to be. He also testified that the plea offer was accepted via a phone call with Joey Cowart the week of the primary election.  

Cross Examination of Blount 

Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black questioned Blount about the emails and pressed him further on the timeline. Blount’s testimony was that the last email in July 2023 was a counteroffer on his part back to the defense, but Black took issue with the fact that it was not explicitly referred to as a counteroffer. 

“Where does it say that?” Black asked.

“So if you read the paragraphs, it talks about why [he negotiated another case in another manner] knowing that Joey wanted me to go to false imprisonment in this, I was explaining to him why I didn’t think that was appropriate. There were factors in that case that weren’t present here,” Blount said.

“So that would be a rejection of his counteroffer?” Black asked.

“No,” Blount replied. “But at the end, I said ‘None of those factors are present in this case. That said, I will oppose First Offender but will agree to leave it to the judge’s discretion.’ So it was my intention to modify my original offer and present that as a counter offer.”

“Well, where in this does it say ‘I’m modifying my original offer?’” Black pressed.

“You can read as well as I can,” Blount answered.

“So it doesn’t,” Black replied. “Those words are not used, are they?”

“I mean, I wrote the email so I can tell you what I was saying,” Blount said.

“I’m asking what the words are,” Black responded.

“Well, you have the words right in front of you,” Blount said.

“I’m asking more specifically,” Black said.

“Okay, the words that are on the page are the words that were in the email,” Blount said. 

“And it does not say ‘I am changing my offer…” Black reiterated.

Black then asked Blount when the call from Cowart was made to accept the plea.

“It was the Monday or Tuesday of the primary. So, I was forced to resign on Thursday and this call was either on a Monday or Tuesday, I’m no exactly sure…and at the meeting where I was asked to step down, I informed you, and Mrs. Totten, Mr. Ben Edwards, and Mr. Tom Woodrum that this case had been resolved and was going to plead,” Blount said.

Specifically, Black belabored that the case was not brought before the judge for the plea at any time between July 2023 and the May 2024 court date, glossing over that Blount and defense attorneys attested to the agreement being made the week of May 21, 2024. When Black thrashed Blount for not putting the case on the plea calendar, Blount said:

“You had left me with quite the mess in Jenkins County that took up a lot of my energy in 2023. That pushed a lot of the cases that I wanted to resolve earlier into 2024. I had a serious case in January 2024. I had another trial in 2024, so it was, I was never trying to push it to trial in 2023 [when it was still unresolved] because I didn’t have the bandwidth.”

Blount continued that the Echevarria case was slated for calendar call the week after the primary and Cowart had called him and they discussed the case.

Black then asked Blount about a group text message between Judge Bennett, Blount, ADA Candace DeLoach, Busbee, and Cowart. In that exchange, Black specifically stated that the judge in the case was aware the case would plea and was available to take it the week of the primary election.

Black: “Is it not true that the court texted you about the status of Hansel Echevarria?” 
Blount: “That’s true.”
Black: “And that was the Thursday after the phone conversation.”
Blount: “That was…”
Black: “May 23rd, 2024, after. The Thursday.
Blount: “Well that would actually be the day that I was fired.”
Black: “Okay well that is after the alleged phone call.”
Blount: “It would have been, yes.”
Black: “Now, is it not true that the court texted you and others…and the court informed you that the court would be available for a plea the next day on 5/24. Actually named the case, cited the case number, said he had a clerk and a court reported standing by. Did the court not text you and others, both parties in this case?”
Blount: “That’s correct.”

Blount went on to testify that he and Black had a conversation about the status of the case. 

“I did tell you at the meeting where you told me that I had to resign or be fired. In fact, we had a discussion about it because you asked me what was going to go to trial and I said that I thought this case was going to, but that we had reached an agreement and that was going to plea, so now I expected it to be [another case name].”

Black then asked, “Is it your testimony that in the meeting where we discussed your employment status that you told me and Daphne and Ben of the name of the case, the status of the case, the defendant’s name, and the negotiations?”

“I said ‘the Echevarria case’ and I did mention the negotiations. I had ran it by Daphne back in June (2023) around the time it came to this and she didn’t…I don’t think she was listening to me, but she didn’t have any objections. But I told her I was resolving it the same way we resolved the [other case name],” Blount replied.

Black also argued that:

  • the agreement by Busbee and Cowart was not in writing
  • despite Blount’s testimony under oath that the agreement was agreed to via phone, phone records should have been provided to prove to the court that they spoke on the phone
  • Blount was aware of a 2022 sentencing recommendation from Black, who was his superior, that was ‘vastly different’ from what he offered more than a year later. While Blount testified he ran the plea offer by DA Totten, Black said Blount didn’t have the authority to ‘override’ his recommendations.

On re-direct, Blount testified that at the time he made the offer, Totten was referring to him as a prosecutor with significant experience prosecuting sexual assault cases. 

“When I make an offer like I did in this case, I feel like the defendant’s conduct justifies a much more serious punishment. But the realities of adult sexual assault cases, given the circumstances of this case, and after speaking with the victim and consulting with her, I felt like that was the best resolution to move the case forward that wasn’t everything I thought was appropriate in this case, but was fair to everyone.”

Testimony of ADA Candace Deloach

Black also called ADA Candace Deloach to testify, as she was Blount’s trial partner before his departure. She testified that she didn’t see evidence of a plea agreement being reached in writing when she reviewed the case filed. She also testified that she was on the text thread with the judge about the availability of the court reporter and clerk to take a plea.

Closing Arguments

Busbee closed by arguing that the state presented no evidence to counter the defense’s arguments. He went on to say:

  • an offer was made that is enforceable against the defendant and the state
  • the argument that Blount didn’t put the plea on the calendar is irrelevant because the case was scheduled for May 28 and Cowart and the client appeared in court to enter a plea that day, only to learn it wasn’t happening.
  • Black’s argument that Blount had no authority to negotiate a plea agreement was never communicated to the defense.

Black’s closing argument focused more on contract law. He argued:

  • A phone call is not a valid acceptance of a contract
  • The defense did not prove the phone call happened, but instead relied on ADA Blount to say the phone call happened
  • A plea agreement is not a contract because the state and defense don’t have equal bargaining power since the defense can withdraw a plea at any time and request a trial
  • The Statute of Frauds for contract law says a contract must be in writing if it is more than a year old
  • The defendant has not been deprived of any of his rights. “He’s just not getting what he wants.”

Busbee took issue with the fact that Black questioned Blount’s testimony under oath as an officer of the court. He also cited a court ruling in which the Georgia Court of Appeals said that plea agreements are, in fact, contracts, but ‘slavish adherence to contract law should be avoided.’

“That’s just a misstatement of the law. I don’t blame Mr. Black. He’s been doing criminal law for the last twenty years or so,” Busbee said. 

Busbee also stated that the reason they didn’t schedule the plea for May 23 or May 24 is because the defendant lives in Atlanta and was already slated to come into town on May 28 for a court date. “We also didn’t know they were getting rid of Casey. We planned to be there on May 28 with Casey to enter a plea.”
(May 25-26 was a weekend, May 27 was Memorial Day)

Judge’s Decision

Judge Bennett said he would consider the legal arguments and accept supporting case law through the end of the week with the intention of issuing a written order at a later date.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and co-creator of of the Peabody Award-nominated podcast 'Prison Town.'

Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

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