True's Story

Prosecutors dropped murder charges against Phillip True. Then he was thrown in jail.

Judge Swanson didn't flinch, imposing the maximum sentence allowed under the terms of the plea bargain.

"In federal court, I've seen where not showing up has been a totally separate offense," Resnick says. "That usually happens if they don't find the person for years and, in the meantime, all the witnesses are gone and the case has gone away. But in this circumstance, the guy's failure to show up didn't have any detrimental effect on the prosecution's case. I understand the justification for the statute, but in this case, the justification wasn't there."

More than one defense attorney familiar with the True case thinks that the original second-degree murder charge against True was meant to pressure him into providing information with which to prosecute Christianson. Many of those same attorneys believe that the failure-to-appear charge was deployed as another bargaining chip to compel a plea. Without commenting directly on the True case, Leonardo Castro, chief public defender for Hennepin County, says that the County Attorney's Office is making it known that there's a greater possibility that failing to appear will be treated as a separate offense. "I am not aware how frequently this thing is actually used in [cases regarding potential] felonies. My guess is that it is used as a bargaining tool."

Erin Eitter Kono

"It is important to us that folks know they have an obligation to show up. I don't know if we have been more prominent about that recently or not," replies Paul Scoggin, one of two county attorneys who handled the True case. "I don't agree with the perception that Phillip True received a Draconian penalty for not showing up. He is in the workhouse because he was looking at two obstruction-of-justice charges--one for spiriting away [Christianson] that night and one for not showing up--and he wanted to cut his losses. We believe he knowingly aided an offender by driving him away from the scene. After that, it doesn't matter if he stopped [for the police] afterward. Someone may think differently, but that's what trials are for. He accepted the terms of the plea agreement for the certainty of not having to go through that trial. And I got the certainty of knowing he was sentenced to a year in jail."

Asked why his client settled, Resnick says, "I think he was tired of it and he just wanted it to be over with." Asked the same question, True first mentions the financial constraints of continuing with the case. "As it is now, I already had to sell my house, and now my wife and daughter don't have that place to stay. And as my attorney said to me, it's hard to fight the failure to show up, because I didn't show up. I did feel that if I came in on sentencing day and pleaded guilty, they would give me a lesser sentence. Instead they maxed me out."

Then True cuts to the quick: "You want to keep this real? The reason I signed the agreement was because I didn't appear [at the hearing] and I am going to be a man about it. And the reason I didn't appear was because I wasn't going to serve time for something I didn't do without fighting it. I didn't contribute to no murder and I didn't do any aiding and abetting afterward. I know in my heart that if I had known what was going to happen, I never would have taken him over there."

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