With the plea bargain, the sun set on the Richards case. Most cases do end this way, especially ones where political pressure might be applied to the major players. However, had Richards held out for a jury verdict, several things could have happened:
The penalty for most felonies is either a jail sentence and/or a hefty fine. In first degree murder, the prosecution may opt for the death penalty, thereby turning it into a capital case . The state must decide to do this before the trial begins. If Richards were found guilty of first degree murder, and the state had decided to go for the death penalty, Richards would have the right to a sentencing hearing, before the same jury. Here, the only issue would be whether he would receive life in prison, or the death penalty. Extenuating citcumstances (facts which make the crime more heinous) are weighted against mitigating circumstances (not excuses, but factors that lessen, to some miniscule degree, the severity of the crime). A unanimous verdict is again required for a sentence of death. Should this happen, Richards' case is automatically appealed to the N.J. Supreme Court for a reversal on the conviction or sentence. When this fails, Richards could then attempt to appeal to the federal level. At any point, the N.J. Governor can grant him clemency; that is, commuting his sentence to life imprisonment, or granting him a pardon and allowing him to walk away a free man. Neither are common occurrances. Most penalties of death get held up in this appeals process that some critics say is endless; many states have a great deal of prisoners on death row, but few, if any, executions.
Picture of sunset, as well as any graphical bars used in this page, are used with permission and taken from the CD-ROM accompanying Que Corporation's book Using HTML by Tom Savola.