AP NEWS

Appeals court affirms sentence of Custer man who attempted to bribe victim

March 21, 2019

The Michigan Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirmed the prison sentence of Ryan Lee Herrera after the former Custer resident had appealed, claiming it was not clear that he committed misconduct by attempting to contact a witness after accepting a plea deal but before being sentenced.

Herrera, 37, is serving 29 years and 8 months at St. Louis Correctional Facility in St. Louis, Michigan for two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which are being served concurrently. He pleaded guilty to the charges in October 2017, as well as to two counts of accosting a child for immoral purposes, for which he is serving two years and four months in prison, concurrently.

According to the decision by the Court of Appeals dated Tuesday and released Wednesday, Herrera and Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola originally agreed to a plea deal for a sentence of 22 years. At sentencing, Spaniola requested that the trial court abandon the plea agreement because he said Herrera attempted to contact one of his victims via a letter. Herrera was barred from contacting any minors as a condition of his pretrial release.

According to court documents, after accepting the plea agreement but before his sentencing, Herrera began writing letters to one of his victims, who is a minor. Because he was prohibited from contacting minors, he tried to communicate with the victim through fellow inmates, according to the Appeals Court decision.

“(Herrera) was barred from contacting any minors as a condition of his pretrial release, so he turned the letters over to other inmates who were being released from jail in the hopes that they would forward the letters to the victim,” the Appeals Court decision states. “In these letters, the defendant asked the victim to attend his sentencing hearing and request that (the) defendant receive only a 15-year sentence, rather than the 22-year sentence he had agreed to.”

According to the court, Herrera wrote in the letters that he would pay the victim $200 immediately and $1,000 once he arrived in prison, with promises of payment annually. According to the documents, the victim did not receive the letters, which were turned over to law enforcement.

The prosecutor’s office argued that because Herrera attempted to contact a victim, he exhibited “misconduct such that the sentence contained in the plea agreement would be voided.” As a result, Spaniola’s office requested that the court “sentence the defendant to the top of the guidelines minimum sentencing range, or 29 years and 8 months imprisonment, and requested a maximum sentence of 70 years.”

In an email to the Daily News, Spaniola said that Herrera’s defense argument “was that a reasonable person would be confused as to what ‘misconduct’ means when it was used in the court rules and on the plea offer forms. Also that he wouldn’t think that committing new felony-class crimes of attempting to bribe a witness multiple times, or violating a no-contact order on his bond, would constitute misconduct.”

The ruling by the appeals court confirms that Herrera should have known that bribing a victim warrants misconduct, Spaniola stated.

Herrera’s defense claimed that his due process rights were violated because it limited his right to withdraw his plea. His defense also claimed he had a right to withdraw his plea once 51st Circuit Court Judge Susan Sniegowski indicated she would exceed the preliminary sentencing evaluation, but he could not because of the language in the plea agreement. The Court of Appeals, though, ruled that Sniegowski did not give a potential sentence, according to the court.

The appeals court also disagreed with the defense’s assertion that the conditions of Herrera’s plea agreement were not clear to the defense. Herrera claimed to the appeals court that he was not aware that misconduct would would erase his right withdraw his guilty plea. The lack of an explanation of the misconduct clause to the defendant was a violation of due process, the defense argued. However, the appeals court stated each condition of a plea agreement did not need to be orally stated, and that Sniegowski asked Herrera multiple times if he had read, signed and understood the rights in both of his plea agreements.

The unanimous decision was was signed by David Sawyer, Mark Cavanagh and Kirsten Frank Kelly.