Was DA right to trade death penalty for confession in killing of four?

Two men charged in Pennsylvania killings
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Story highlights

  • Danny Cevallos: Cosmo Dinardo's plea bargain raises a variety of ethical issues
  • Chief among them -- should plea bargains be offered in death penalty-eligible cases?

Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst who practices in the areas of personal injury, wrongful conviction and criminal defense in Pennsylvania, New York and the US Virgin Islands, at the law firms of Cevallos & Wong in Philadelphia, and Edelman & Edelman in New York, where he is of counsel. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)According to CNN, Cosmo Dinardo has confessed to his "participation" in the deaths of four missing men in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a bucolic suburban county unaccustomed to grisly killings like this.

Dinardo's lawyer got him a good deal: In exchange for Dinardo's confession, and his cooperation with the investigation, the Bucks County District Attorney's Office has promised not to seek the death penalty.
    Danny Cevallos
    This deal may have saved Dinardo's life, but it raises a question. It's a question that's probably considered heresy among the criminal defense bar, one that will get me banished with cries of "Shame!", but here goes: Does plea bargaining, or deals like Dinardo's in death penalty-eligible cases, undermine the whole idea behind the death penalty itself?
    It's an interesting thing, the death penalty. For the most part, we do not take an Old Testament, "eye for an eye" approach to punishment. If you steal a car, society punishes you with imprisonment, not by stealing your car. If you hurt someone while driving drunk, society imprisons you; it does not put you in an arena with a bunch of heavily intoxicated drivers as punishment.
    Yet, some states and the federal system do have laws allowing them to punish the most serious crimes -- like murder -- with murder: capital punishment. Even then, it's typically reserved for only the worst kinds of murder, those killings with additional aggravating circumstances. In Pennsylvania, these circumstances include a killing during a drug enterprise, a kidnapping and ransom situation and a torture killing.
    The rationale behind the death penalty is that some killings are so egregious, so offensive to our society, that imprisonment is not enough. For certain types of murder, Pennsylvania has no other choice but to murder you right back.
    Unless ... you save the prosecutors the cost and effort of a trial.
    Timeline of disappearances of four men
    Timeline of disappearances of four men

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      Timeline of disappearances of four men

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    Then, even if authorities have alleged you have played a role in the execution of four people during a drug sale, burying their bodies and trying to sell one of their cars, life imprisonment is enough.
    The people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have decided, through their elected legislators, that the worst kinds of murder, like those believed to be committed by Dinardo, are so awful that they must be punished with death. Should that be open to the same wheeling-and-dealing used to negotiate speeding tickets in traffic court, or even drug cases in felony court?
    Don't get me wrong: when Cosmo Dinardo's lawyer expertly negotiated his client's talking in exchange for the Commonwealth dropping the death penalty, there was a valid contract that benefited all parties: Dinardo's life was saved, and the prosecution got the answers it needed.
    It's true that the deal benefited the victims' families as well. They get closure. They have the opportunity to have their children's bodies returned to them. But make no mistake: the families are not parties to this transaction. The families are just beneficiaries, with no real decision-making power. The prosecution might solicit their input, but the prosecution does not directly represent victims or their bereaved; the prosecution represents the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
    So then what happens if the families of the victims in this case were to say they don't care what information Dinardo has? Suppose the families want a "pound of flesh"? Suppose they will only accept the death penalty for the loss of their loved ones? Ultimately, the prosecutor can ignore them. In fairness, most prosecutors are very involved with the victims' families and keenly aware of the families' positions on any deals. But if the district attorney wants that information from Dinardo, the district attorney alone can dangle Dinardo's own life in front of him as bait.
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    As an aside, it's interesting that a DA can threaten to seek someone be killed if he or she doesn't cooperate. Can you imagine if a defense attorney or a defendant did that? Actually, I can imagine it. It's called witness intimidation, and it's a serious crime, as it should be.
    Courts in Bucks County have no problem handing down prison sentences against defendants for witness intimidation. It's just interesting that a DA can promise not to seek the killing of a person to get what the DA wants out of him or her.
    Ultimately, though, if everyone is satisfied with the arrangement -- defense, prosecution and family -- then it's hard to criticize the process.
    In the end, maybe death penalty deals are unjustifiable in principle, but they paradoxically result in justice.