CAMP VERDE -- During the sentencing hearing in Seth Collins’ three cases Monday afternoon, no sentencing occurred – instead, Judge Michael R. Bluff rejected a plea deal for the first time in his 10-year career at Yavapai County Superior Court.
Collins pleaded guilty Oct. 4, 2016, for charges related to a Nov. 21, 2014, accident involving a van carrying eight people. Five medical helicopters were lined up on the highway that evening to receive the three adults and five children to fly them to trauma centers.
The plea deal stipulated Collins serve 21 to 25 years in prison.
Both victims and victim representatives were present in the courtroom Monday, as well as about a dozen people in support of Collins.
Bluff advised the attorneys at a hearing that morning of the court’s intention to possibly reject a stipulation in the plea. When Collins’ advising attorney Alex Harris inquired into which stipulation, Bluff said it was in regard to sentencing.
“I’m going to explain what I’m going to do today,” Bluff said at the subsequent afternoon sentencing hearing. “During the last year, there have been several legal issues in this case.”
Bluff pointed out that during the past year, there had been a request for a new lawyer, an evidentiary hearing, a new judge was requested twice, a filing for a writ of Habeas Corpus and an appeal to the court of appeals for a petition of a special action – all of which ended in denials.
“The court is rejecting the stipulated sentence. I’m sensitive to the fact that this is going to delay the case, but in this case I feel it is appropriate,” Bluff said.
Bluff also said he was prepared to appoint a public defender if Collins so chooses. Collins addressed the court and said that he would like to move forward with a public defender instead of continuing to represent himself.
The state and the defense were then given the option to speak on how they would like to proceed.
Prosecutor Patti Wortman told the court the state had no problem proceeding with the plea deal without the stipulated time.
With approval of present victims, a status conference and possible sentencing was set for Nov. 22, one day after the three-year mark of the case.
After a brief meeting with the prosecution in Bluff’s office, the defense asked the court for both a continuance and an approximate idea of a more appropriate time range in regard to the stipulated sentence.
Bluff, citing a 2015 presentence report, said 15 to 21 years.
“Now that we’ve been given more information, I’d like to withdraw my earlier offer,” said Wortman.
Bluff confirmed Wortman’s offer to move forward with the plea without a stipulation of the sentencing had been withdrawn.
In 2015, the state and the defense were determining the stipulations of the original plea deal. Bluff was not inclined to offer Collins a plea of what could essentially be a life sentence for a 46-year-old man.
“It’s a matter of whether he [Collins] should spend the rest of his life in prison or have some life left after he is released,” Bluff said in 2015.