LOS ANGELES (CBS) The plea deal offered by the San Diego District Attorney's Office and accepted by John Gardner in the murders of 17-year-old Chelsea King and 14-year-old Amber Dubois has generated a lot of discussion, and dissatisfaction. In several online polls I have seen, up to 67% of the people were disappointed with the plea.
And while I can relate to the public's feeling that the plea was somewhat anti-climactic when compared to the shock of Gardner's crimes, I do believe that this was an excellent plea from the perspective of the prosecution.
John Gardner pled guilty Friday, April 16 to the murders and sexual assaults of Chelsea and Amber. He admitted to raping and strangling King in February of this year, and raping and stabbing Dubois in February 2009. By leading police to the body of Dubois and admitting to the murders, Gardner spared himself from the death penalty. He will now most likely spend the rest of his life in prison. His sentence is 33 years to life, without the possibility of parole.
There were other critical elements to this plea as well though, which make it a just result, and the victims' families seem to agree. First, Gardner waived his right to appeal; second, prosecutors took a factual guilty plea - which means he acknowledged a factual basis for the plea which will further insure that the terms are upheld.
These are two critical elements that give the plea deal a more robust legal force. Also, nothing in this plea bars the prosecutor from bringing new cases against Gardner should other victims come forward or be discovered.
After speaking with Carrie McGonigle, Amber Dubois' mom - and also hearing Brent King, Chelsea's father, at a press conference - I believe while there is no "happiness" in this plea for the families, there is a small amount of satisfaction. Satisfaction in the sense that the case has come to a resolution and it is one that will allow both families to start to move on, heal, find closure, and utilize this tragedy as a catalyst for change.
While many people have not come to grips that this case is essentially over, we should all recognize that the wheels of justice do not have to turn slower than molasses. As evidenced by the Gardner plea deal: a case like this can be investigated, filed, pled, and sentenced properly in a short time if all the people are doing their job.
In the Gardner case the police did their job, the prosecution did theirs, and thankfully the defendant did his as well.
Overriding the disappointment that there is no "reciprocal justice" for Gardner (i.e. death) may prove impossible. Regardless of how you feel about the morality or practicality of the death penalty in general, I'm sure we can all pause to sympathize with the specific grieving of the parents of raped and murdered children.
The fact that the monster who did this to these two girls will still breathe every day of his life in jail must be the most painful thing imaginable. Emotionally and psychologically speaking it may take years, if ever, for the families to gain true closure. But there is some bottom line "good news" in this case: legal justice has been served and served expeditiously to Gardner!
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Robin Sax is a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney who specialized in prosecuting sex crimes against children. She is the author of several books including "It Happens Every Day: Inside the World of a Sex Crimes D.A.," "Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe," and "The Complete Idiots Guide to the Criminal Justice System." Sax is an instructor for the LAPD and a regular commentator on "Today," "Nancy Grace" and "Larry King Live."