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Perils of prosecuting

Nevada Appeal editorial board

The effectiveness of plea bargains in the criminal courts can be argued endlessly. Are they a necessary shortcut to keep the docket moving in today’s overburdened courtrooms, or do they circumvent justice by sanctioning “deals” that mean facts and evidence never see the light of a public trial?

The truth lies somewhere in between, of course, and each case is different. But two recent high-profile murder charges in Northern Nevada provide some insight into the perils of prosecution.

One case is in Carson City, where a 33-year-old woman, Kelly Sue Hein, was accused of murder in the death of a 79-year-old woman for whom she was supposed to be acting as caretaker.

Iris Barton died in the upstairs bedroom of her home, but we’ll never know the cause. That’s because her body lay in bed for weeks until authorities discovered it by chance.

How culpable was Hein? By the plea bargain reached Friday, she is guilty of neglect and exploitation. She could serve a prison term of four to 10 years, and she will be shut out of at least $50,000 she may have claimed in Barton’s will.

If there is more to her guilt, it’s between Hein and her conscience. This plea bargain was satisfactory, because prosecutors would have had a difficult time proving Hein was responsible for the death.

In Reno, an Incline Village man was on trial for six weeks for the murder of his wife before jurors concluded they were hopelessly deadlocked at 9-3, and the trial ended with no verdict.

We don’t know if a plea bargain was ever discussed in the case of Peter Bergna, but it was clearly a difficult charge to prove. Bergna was accused of killing his wife, Rinette, by purposely crashing their truck through a guardrail on Slide Mountain and jumping to safety at the last moment.

Prosecutors may decide to seek a second trial. At this point, however, neither side can be satisfied justice has been done.