The revelation that a Northern California couple confessed to kidnapping Jaycee Dugard and holding her captive for 18 years likely indicates plea bargain negotiations that could resolve the case without a trial are well under way, legal experts say.
Stephen Tapson, a court-appointed attorney who represents defendant Nancy Garrido, told reporters this week his client and her husband, Phillip Garrido, recently gave "full confessions" to detectives.
Dugard was present during at least one interview, while investigators sought to determine if there were other victims, according to Tapson.
The admissions likely were made with the stipulation the statements could not be used directly against them as evidence. But the fact that Tapson and Phillip Garrido's lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Susan Gellman, consented to the conversations at all indicates they hope to strike some sort of deal with El Dorado County prosecutors, veteran lawyers interviewed by The Associated Press said.
"It certainly sounds like they are marching toward it, and before the D.A. signs off on it they want to see if there is any glimmer of hope, there is some remorse there, and to make sure they are doing their duty to the public in seeing if there are other victims," said Joe Dane, an Orange County, Calif., criminal defense lawyer who spent 12 years as a prosecutor.
The Garridos were arrested 18 months ago. In addition to kidnapping and false imprisonment, they have been charged with multiple counts of rape, lewd conduct with a minor and child pornography.
Phillip Garrido faces additional allegations that could lead to a tougher sentence because he is a convicted rapist who served 11 years in prison before Dugard's 1991 abduction.
Authorities allege the Garridos kept Dugard, now 30, confined to the backyard of the couple's Antioch home, which had been shielded by shrubbery and a false fence, and outfitted with tents and sheds. While still a teenager, Dugard gave birth there to two daughters fathered by Phillip Garrido and delivered by Nancy Garrido.
Lawyers not directly involved with the case offered their opinions on what might be going on behind the scenes with the caveat that numerous outcomes, including a trial, still are possible.
Yet they agreed that Tapson's disclosure that prosecutors were talking about a 440-year prison sentence for Phillip Garrido, 59, and almost 242 years for Nancy Garrido, 55, implies that District Attorney Vern Pierson is holding most of the cards, especially if Dugard is not only willing but eager to publicly confront her captors in court.
"The negotiating position of the prosecution has been very, very stiff. They have a high visibility case with outrageously harmful behavior by at least one person who apparently has a history of outrageously harmful behavior," said Stephen Munkelt, a defense lawyer in Nevada City. "One of the few things the defense has to motivate a better settlement by the prosecution is the time, trouble and expense and stress of everybody having to go through the trial process to get the same result."
Sparing Dugard and her children from having to take the witness stand also could be a motivating factor and negotiating tool for both sides. In and out of court, Gellman and Tapson have portrayed the Garridos as having formed unconventional but strong familial bonds with the three. Dugard, meanwhile, is writing a memoir but has mostly avoided the spotlight.
"If the choices are plead guilty to what is guaranteed to be a life sentence or go to trial in what is guaranteed to be a life sentence, there might be a slight tactical advantage in painting them in the light of wanting to cooperate and make amends," Dane said.
He added, however, that such a strategy could prove risky if plea negotiations collapse.
"He has now tainted the jury pool anywhere this case would be tried by admitting she has made a full confession," Dane said of Tapson's remarks.
Jeff Bornstein, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense lawyer, said that by making the Garridos available for questioning, the defense could be holding out hope, however slim, for reduced sentences that allow for at least the possibility of parole.
Another possibility is a settlement that requires Phillip Garrido to accept a heavier hit in exchange for some measure of leniency for his wife, said defense lawyer Jeff Rubenstein, who spent five years as a prosecutor.
Tapson hinted at that option when he told reporters he would find a sentence of 20 to 30 years acceptable for his client, and that he could see arguing to a jury that she was under her husband's control.
Rubenstein thinks it's a long shot. While 95 percent of criminal charges are resolved through plea bargains, serious cases such as this one are more likely to result in trials because the defendant has little to lose, he said.
Still, the one-of-a-kind nature of the case involving a horrific crime that went on for years, and a victim who had family relationships with those accused makes predicting what will happen especially complicated, Golden Gate University criminal law professor Nancy Rutberg said.
"I could imagine if I were the prosecutor in the case, as long as I could get a satisfyingly lengthy sentence, I might want to suggest to the victim the best outcome would be a plea bargain rather than put her through more emotional anguish," Rutberg said. "And if I were the defense lawyer, it seems like an extra-difficult case to come up with a defense for, so I would be looking for a plea bargain as well."
Rutberg said she was intrigued by the confessions and Tapson's statement that Dugard attended one of Nancy Garrido's recent interviews with detectives, presumably to vet the defendant's statements.
Tapson says he wants to know if Dugard thinks his client deserves to spend the rest of her life in prison.
It was the first time the women had seen each other since Phillip Garrido inexplicably brought them and his daughters with Dugard to a meeting with his surprised parole officer in August 2009. Dugard at first identified herself as "Alyssa," an abused woman who had sought shelter with the couple, then under duress revealed her identity to police.
"It must have been a very emotionally wrenching meeting and obviously, it didn't have to happen," Rutberg said of Dugard's presence when police questioned the Garridos. "The fact that (Dugard) went into it says she seems to be an extraordinary woman who has managed to remain resilient and sane despite this horrific experience."