Innocent Pleas vs Plea Bargains

What Juries Do Not Hear

In 1996, Tammy Traxtle was charged with the murder of her ex-husband. She was offered an 18 month plea bargain: “Just testify that you saw your brother pull the trigger.” She could not lie on the stand. That was 18 years ago..



Our nation’s prisons are filled with women who belong elsewhere. Many have been convicted for tangential connections to crimes committed by bad men. Guilt by association is enough to put a good woman behind bars for many years, sometimes-forever.

Nobody knows this better than Tammy Traxtle, prisoner #11459298 at the Coffee Creek Correctional Center in Wilsonville, Oregon. On April 1,1996, Tammy, then a 23 year old clerical worker, agreed to drive her brother to Salem from Corvallis. He had no car, and needed to complete a business deal. For helping out, Tammy would be provided with a new washing machine-a welcome gift for a mother of three children.

Jeff did not mention the nature of the business, only that he needed to meet Tammy’s former husband- Carlos. Tammy asked no further questions. She knew that Jeff had connections with the drug world, and preferred to stay out of his business.

A Success Story

Tammy was raised in a dysfunctional family. At a young age she ran away from home and settled in Mexico. Upon returning the USA, she met and married Carlos, and had a child. The marriage did not go well, and the two separated.

Back here in the states, she had few opportunities. But blessed with innate intelligence, she passed her G.E.D, entered college, studied to become a legal secretary, and landed a good job at a municipal court. All this while taking care of three daughters.

Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is an esteemed virtue in American society. But her success caused others to become jealous. In February of 1996, she bumped into two old acquaintances at a mall. Tammy talked about her achievements: graduating from college, getting off welfare, finding work at the court, even the purchase of a new car. She was not bragging, just sharing good news and trying to encourage friends who weren’t doing so well.

Good news is not always well taken. This chance encounter would later turn against her, quite shockingly, in court.

An Unfortunate Rendezvous

April 1, 1996 was the day that would forever change Tammy’s life. As mentioned above, she agreed drive her brother Jeff to Salem to “take care of business.” For many years, the two had an estranged relationship, and now they were mending old bonds.

When they arrived in Salem, she exited the car, Jeff took the wheel, and sped off to meet Carlos. He was gone about 30-40 minutes.

Upon returning, the news was not good. “The deal did not go as planned.”

Early the next morning, at 3:00 am, Tammy received a call from the police. The news was dreadful–Carlos was dead. He was found dead on a road with five shots to the head. A bag of cocaine was found next to his body.

At 7:00 am, a Corvallis policeman visited Tammy’s home. Connecting the dots, she surmised that Jeff was the shooter.

Tammy gave the officer an honest accounting of the previous evening. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant. As a reward for cooperating, she was arrested, handcuffed, and brought to the police department.

During interrogation she requested a lawyer and asserted the right to silence. But police interrogations are never quite like they are like on T.V. The questions keep on coming and coming. And as many young women do, she lied to the police, trying to protect her brother.

Guilt by Association

On April 3, Tammy was arraigned in court. She cringed when the charge was read: murder. It was a shock. “I didn’t kill anybody.” It would be many hours until she would see a lawyer. And then several days before one agreed to take her case.

Tammy had never been in trouble with the police. Moreover, she was a responsible, hard working mother. But her past circumstances did not bide well with the forces of law and order. She was cavorting with Mexican men, had a child from her ex-husband, and two more from her live in boyfriend.

At least so she thought. A paternity test would later show that her ex-husband was father of her second daughter as well. Tammy tried not to disclose this information. Ex-husband Carlos had not shown any interest in fatherly duties during the previous four years.

Women Who Run with the Wolves

In the eyes of the public, the forces of law and order are supposed to maintain public safety, and arrest and prosecute those who break the law. But police and prosecutors believe they have a deeper, sacred mission: to enforce moral order upon society. Ridding society of amoral elements, especially degenerate females, is an inherent task.

Tammy Traxtle was hardly the stereotypical “good girl.” She was unmarried, a mother of three children through two different men, both of whom were immigrants from Mexico. And to top it all off, her brother was a drug dealer, and quite probably a murderer. “Those who run with the wolves”, the saying goes, “are guilty of the kill”.

The Plea

The district attorney offered Tammy a deal. “Just say you saw Jeff shoot Carlos, and you’ll get 18 months. Take the plea, do the time, and soon you will be back to work and reunited with your children. It is a short sentence for a horrible crime. Cross us, go to court, and you will face the consequences. We will ask for life, you will do 25, and that is years, not months!” ((Personal Communication. Tammy Traxtle. July 14, 2012))

The power that the American prosecutor wields over criminal suspects is stunning and frightening. The public, saturated with the fluff of celebrities beating charges in televised trials, have come to think that only those who are overwhelmingly guilty go to prison.

For the average citizen, chasing justice is a far different matter. Sitting in a cold concrete jail, separated from her children, Tammy slowly and painfully pondered the carrot dangled by the prosecutor. In the end, she could not consent.”I did not see Jeff shoot Carlos. And I cannot and will not lie and say what I do not know.”  ((Ibid.)) She decided to go to court, and seek vindication in front of a jury.

Credible Witnesses?

At the time, Tammy’s decision was quite sound. She admitted to being a knowing accomplice to a drug deal, but denied any knowledge of the murder. Moreover, the state had nothing to tie her to the killing.

In a great stroke of luck for the prosecution, two “witnesses” voluntarily came forward with information. These were the same two women Tammy met by chance at the mall in February. Both Sheila Devine and Lori Jensen Reyes offered evidence of a premeditated murder conspiracy. Sheila would testify “Tammy’s father and brother were planning to kill Carlos.” The reason, “her brother wanted to know what it was like to kill somebody.” Furthermore, “they were going to shoot him in the head.”  ((Testimony of Sheila Devine. November 18, 1996. TT: pages 139~140))

Lori Reyes confirmed Devine’s testimony. She also heard Tammy say, “The police would never be able to prove that she (Tammy) was involved, …and that Carlos did not deserve to live.”  ((Testimony of Lori Jensen-Reyes November 18, 1996 TT: pages 174~5.)) In regard to the gun, “..they would probably throw it in the river.”  ((Ibid. 175))

It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that anybody would just blurt out a murder plot in lucid detail to two casual acquaintances one has not seen after a hiatus of two years. What drove these two women to concoct such a story?

One answer: grudges. Sheila’s sister had quarreled with Tammy a number of times involving boyfriends. And as mentioned above, Tammy had become financially independent, and moved off welfare. Sheila was still on welfare, and having problems making ends meet. ((Testimony of Tammy Traxtle, November 19, 1996, TT: Page 774))

Lori Jensen had a separate agenda. She had worked for Tammy as a babysitter, taking care of Liana, Tammy’s oldest daughter. At the time, Lori Jensen was unmarried and childless. Lori claimed in court that Tammy offered Liana to her for adoption. ((Testimony of Lori Jensen-Reyes November 18, 1996 TT: Page 167)) Tammy adamantly denied this assertion. She testified that she deliberately stopped the babysitting in an act of possessiveness when Liana began calling her babysitter “Mama Lori”. ((Traxtle Testimony November. 22, 1996. Page 772))

A deeper jealousy also played a part. Lori later married and became pregnant. Her first pregnancy coincided with Tammy’s third. In a tragic stroke of misfortune, Lori miscarried after three and a half months. ((Ibid. Page, 771))

A Jail House Snitch

Poll 100 defense lawyers on the absolutely worst facet of criminal justice in the USA, and the answer will certainly be “the jail house snitch.” Sitting in a jail and facing long time behind bars among the refuse of humanity, many people will say just about anything to escape. Police know it, prosecutors know it, defense attorneys rally against it, and the U.S Supreme Court allows it.

Soon, a snitch emerged in this case. Gidget King was a habitual guest of the department of corrections. She was seated in a police van along with Tammy and some others while being transported. Tammy refused to discuss her case, having been vehemently warned by attorneys, “not to talk with anybody.”

In court, King claimed that during the ride in the van, Tammy confessed the entire crime step by step. The murder was about visitation rights, and potential custody conflicts with Carlos. Tammy even explained how the victim was lured into her car and shot. King also corroborated previous testimony that “the murder weapon was disposed of in a river.” ((Testimony of Gidget King. November 20, 1996. (Transcripts Vol 3, p.499~512).))

From What River?

Prosecutors love to have a murder weapon to wave in court. Without a weapon, the case is intrinsically weaker. If the murder weapon cannot be produced, the prosecution must explain its absence.

And so we have three different witnesses offering identical testimony for the absence of the gun. The gun was “thrown in a river.” Such testimony seems very convincing. After all, could three different witnesses be coached to parrot a fabrication?

Indeed they could. And the jury would never find out. The gun would later be retrieved. And It was not found in any river, but buried in cement. ((Eugene Register-Guard. April 12, 1997))

Verdict and Sentence

On Nov 26, 1996, Tammy Traxtle was found guilty of murder and kidnapping. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. Had she taken the plea bargain, she would have been released in 1998. This is 2014. Sixteen years later. And she still has 7 years to go.

18 months versus 25 years. The secrecy of plea bargains is an entrenched problem of criminal justice in America. The jury will never hear the details, because its disclosure is prohibited. Had the jury known of the plea bargain, and of Tammy’s refusal, would they have sent her away for 25 years? It behooves the conscience to think so.

Strange but True

In a later trial, Jeff Traxtle was found guilty of the same charges. Unlike his sister, he was sentenced to life without parole. In a bizarre twist of events, a third family member would also wind up behind bars.

Enter Jack Traxtle, the father of Tammy and Jeff. Seeing that his two children would be spending most, if not all their natural lives in prison, he falsely tried to take the blame for the crime. He discovered the missing gun, which had been buried in concrete, took it to the authorities, and confessed to carrying out the murder single-handedly. ((Ibid))

The authorities were not fooled. On April 11, 1997, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for perjury and hindering prosecution.

Children Protected or Abducted?

To a woman behind bars, whether guilty or innocent, the safety and welfare of her children take the highest priority. Every woman wants her children to be safe, educated and in good care. And to the incarcerated mother, visits from children are the most cherished and anticipated moment, the highest happiness.

Shortly after conviction, Tammy was in the midst of a visit from her three daughters. They all looked beautiful, and were trying to understand what was happening to Mom. She tried to explain to the young, curious minds the meaning of “appeal.”

And in the midst of this explanation, lightning struck. All three daughters were suddenly yanked away. Yes, right out of the prison guest room, without reason. Tammy later found out that Carlos’s widow, Laura, worked for Child Protective Services. Laura knew the system and engineered an abduction. That was in 1996. Tammy has not seen her daughters since.

Even Stranger Yet

Tammy went through the routine avenue of appeals. She later filed for PCR-namely post conviction relief. It is a civil suit against the state challenging the legality of incarceration. In yet another bizarre twist, the attorney assigned to represent Tammy was Sally Avera–wife of Polk County district attorney Fred Avera– her prosecutor.

Tammy fought tooth and nail for a new attorney. And once again, her efforts ended in failure. She took on the onerous task of representing herself, authoring and filing briefs to the US District Court. These efforts also came to naught.

25 Years – Why?

Cases like this one always raise deep lingering questions. Questions which begin with why? Why would Polk county D.A. Fred Avera mount a massive attack against Tammy Traxtle? Why put her away for 25 years to life? After all, would he have offered an 18 month plea bargain if she were really guilty of murder?

The logical response to this quagmire is “no.” But prosecution in America is less about justice and more about power. Refusing a plea bargain is an affront to power. And from a woman, the effrontery stings much more. The wayward mare must learn who is master. Prosecution is not only a pursuit of justice, but demanding subservience to the force of authority.

Commutation: A Chance at Freedom

With all chances of appeal exhausted, Tammy has only two possible avenues to freedom. One is to sit and wait for a parole board hearing in 2021. The other is to appeal for clemency to Governor Kitzhaber.

Clemencies usually consist of commutations and pardons. Pardons wipe away the crime and leave the former defendant without a criminal record. Tammy only begs a commutation, to get out of prison, and resume life on the outside. She has given the state 18 years more than they originally asked. One wonders, is it enough?

Michael H. Fox is associate professor at Hyogo University and director of the Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center. Read other articles by Michael H., or visit Michael H.'s website.