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Why so many plea deals? Especially in sexual assault cases involving minors

Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo V. Ale (right) and the AG’s office administrator  Fa’aua’a Katuferu during the Department of Legal Affairs FY 2020 budget hearing on Wednesday before the Fono Joint Budget Committee

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Sen. Logoai Siaki Logoai, a retired High Court associate judge, is questioning why prosecutors in many criminal cases — especially sexual assault cases involving minors—- enter into plea deals with a defendant, resulting in charges being dismissed.

The Manu’a senator raised the issue when Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo V. Ale appeared Wednesday for his Department of Legal Affairs FY 2020 budget proposal before the Fono Joint Budget Committee.

Logoai said that in many court cases — as reported by the media — prosecutors always move with a plea deal, even in serious matters, like those involving minor victims. He said cases involving minor victims — even drug cases — are pled down to just one charge in the end.

He said these plea deals are made because attorneys from both sides reach an agreement, and there’s nothing the court can do about it. And in the end, defendants in these cases end up serving short jail terms.

Talauega responded that it’s difficult to provide an answer, as each case is different and has its own circumstances. It’s also difficult, he said, to say whether the decision by attorneys to reach a plea agreement is right or wrong, as he’s not involved in each case and he is not aware of the reasons for reaching the agreement.

He did point out that prosecutors and the AG’s Office do not take any case lightly, especially when it comes to protecting “our young children” who become victims of crimes.

He said sometimes cases don’t go to trial because the guardian or parent(s) would request not to prosecute the case, saying their child will not be brought to court to testify at trial. “And when something like this happens, it makes it difficult for prosecutors to move the case forward in court,” Talauega explained.

House Vice Speaker Fetu Fetui Jr., said he agrees with concerns raised by Logoai and urged the AG’s Office to take this matter seriously.

Also raised during the hearing, is the AG’s salary, which is listed in his department’s budget document as $73,000 annually for the new fiscal year — same amount as FY 2019.

Human Resources director, Eseneiaso Liu, had told the joint budget committee last Friday that her office has received the governor’s proposal to increase to $75,000 the salaries of 12 executive branch directors, including the AG. (See Samoa News Sept. 9th edition for details.)

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Magalei Logovi’i, who also co-chairs the joint budget committee, asked Talauega if he had requested a salary increase from the $73,000 listed in the budget.

Talauega said no, and added that he did request the governor for an additional 20 staffers for the Immigration Office. He said it’s important that this office, which currently has a staff of 35, has sufficient employees — at least 50.

He added that there are other areas of the department that need additional staff — but didn’t elaborate further.

Dept. of Legal Affairs’ proposed FY 2020 budget totals $2.20 million, which is the same as FY 2019. Talauega said all divisions of the department are working hard but for the Attorney General’s Office alone, it’s very difficult to recruit and keep attorneys here due to low salaries and other issues. He didn’t elaborate on how many attorneys are currently working in his office or how many more are needed.

He then introduced Fa’aua’a Kateferu — who attended the hearing alongside him — as the AG’s office administrator. According to the budget document, the office administrator’s FY 2020 proposed salary is about $41,000.

Other divisions of the Dept. of Legal Affairs are Weights & Measures, Territorial Registrar’s Office, and the Independent Prosecutor’s Office, which is an independent agency, but its budget is part of the Dept. of Legal Affairs.