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HOLMBERG: Richmond judge rejecting plea deal unusual, but not unheard of

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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- “Your plea is rejected. Have a good day.”

Just like that, Richmond Circuit Court Judge Richard D. Taylor tossed out a deal Friday that would’ve allowed William Lee Hazelgrove Jr. to plead guilty to a misdemeanor delinquency-of-a-minor charge and go free on a one-year suspended sentence.

Hazelgrove, a well-known artist and potter and Trinity Episcopal School teacher, faced a felony indecent-liberties-with-a-minor charge for his alleged relationship with a 17-year-old female student.

Witnesses, attorneys and even the bailiff apparently gasped at the judge’s bluntness, according to a CBS-6 reporter in the courtroom.

A judge rejecting a plea arranged between a prosecutor and a defense attorney is rare, but not unheard of.

“The rules provide for the eventuality of a judge rejecting a plea agreement and it’s important that they do,” said Richmond attorney Steve Benjamin, the president of the National Criminal Defense Bar. “Because judges have got to be able to make their own intelligent assessment of whether a plea is in the interest of justice and societal interests.”

That rejection of a plea deal basically just resets the judicial clock.

“The rules provide that the accused is permitted to withdraw his guilty plea and the case is transferred to another judge for that judge to exercise his own independent judgment,” Benjamin said.

Any evidence shared between the defendant and prosecutor during the plea negotiation is inadmissible in further court proceedings.

Hazelgrove’s attorney, Todd Stone, told CBS-9 Friday evening that he’s hoping he and the prosecutor can present the plea request  to another judge, which is what Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring said is often the next step.

The Richmond prosecutor in the case, Mary Langer, said only that another judge will be assigned to the case.

A review of some of his cases show Judge Taylor has accepted many plea arrangements during his long career, which has included many high-profile and complex cases.

So why did Taylor he reject this plea, and in such a terse manner?

He gave no explanation. Judges don’t have to and often don’t, Benjamin said, describing Taylor as  “a terrific judge.”