Of more than 1,700 known exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, persons innocent of the crime pleaded guilty in 261 or 15 percent of the cases. The November 2015 newsletter of The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) sheds light on the non-intuitive decision to plead guilty when innocent, the systemic pressures that prompt it, and why an unknown number of wrongful convictions based on false guilty pleas may never be identified or corrected.
About 95 percent of criminal felony and misdemeanor convictions in the United States now come by way of a guilty plea. The trend of case resolution by plea negotiation has diminished the percentage of cases that are resolved by jury or bench trial. As the report points out, guilty pleas usually result in lighter sentences — sometimes much lighter — than a conviction at trial, which is one of the incentives to plead guilty, even for the innocent.
The report explains, “In many cases, they [the accused innocent] would rather put the injustice behind them than engage in prolonged legal battles to prove their innocence.”
The report is based on 1,702 exonerations — a dynamic number that has increased to 1,707 as of today. The likelihood of guilty pleas from those later exonerated was related to the type of crime, the risks and costs of going to trial, and the penalty if convicted.
For example, the percentage of exonerated people who falsely pleaded guilty to sexual assault of an adult was 4 percent of all such cases, while innocents who pleaded guilty to robbery was 12 percent. The NRE report suggests that the stigma of sexual assault may prevent those who are falsely accused from pleading guilty, unless they are given the opportunity to plead to a lesser, non-sex crime.
The numbers also indicate that the greater the risks associated with going to trial and the sweeter the prosecutor’s offer, the more likely even an innocent person will accept a plea deal.
To illustrate, among murder exoneration cases:
- No innocent person pleaded guilty and then received the death penalty. Therefore, there are no guilty pleas among the one hundred and fifteen known death penalty case exonerations (0/115).
- Just one guilty plea case is among those who were sentenced to life without parole (1/72). The report notes that in this case, the accused was at risk of the death penalty.
- Six percent of those who were given a sentence of life with parole pleaded guilty (13/211).
- Ten percent of those who were sentenced to less than a life in prison pleaded guilty (30/299)
- A whopping 49 percent (17/35) of innocents convicted and later exonerated of manslaughter had pleaded guilty. “Almost all manslaughter guilty-plea exonerations started as murder cases and were plea bargained down to manslaughter,” notes the report. Those who pleaded guilty to manslaughter faced lower risks than in other murder cases. More than a third were in non-death penalty states. They received lower sentences — 12 years on average — and none were sentenced to life in prison.
Among those who falsely pleaded guilty in homicide cases, 44 out of 61 were convicted of murder. Nearly all — 42 of 44 cases — were in death penalty states. The report notes, “It appears that the great majority [of those who pleaded guilty] did so to avoid the risk of execution.”
While they avoided the death penalty, these cases resulted in stiffer sentences than those that were reduced to a manslaughter plea. Fourteen of the wrongful murder convictions that included guilty pleas resulted in sentences of life or life without parole. The other 30 who pleaded guilty to murder were sentenced to an average of 22 years in prison.
A guilty plea can reduce a sentence, but it also works against efforts to later prove innocence. People tend to believe that pleading guilty is a true indication of guilt. And, ironically, the lighter sentence resulting from accepting a plea often reduces the likelihood of advocates assisting in correcting the injustice. It generally takes years to prove innocence after conviction, and those who work on innocence claims focus on cases with longer sentences, or death penalty cases.
The NRE’s comprehensive report also explains a surge in guilty pleas in drug cases. Among drug-crime exonerations, two-thirds included a guilty plea. While only 9 percent of exonerations are in drug-crime cases, these account for 40 percent of all guilty-plea cases in the Registry. A recent spike in drug-related exonerations had a geographic focus: Since early 2014, 71 drug exonerations have occurred in Harris County (Houston, Texas). Every case included a guilty plea.
Harris County has had a policy of drug testing after a guilty plea. The county discovered that in these cases of false guilty pleas, the evidence thought to be a drug later proved through testing not to be a controlled substance.
The NRE suggested that we have no idea how many innocent people have pled guilty to drug charges in other counties (or any other type of crime). The practice in most counties is to do NO drug testing after a guilty plea. Many believe that a guilty plea precludes the need. After all, who would plead guilty to a crime he or she did not commit?
As it turns out, more than most imagine. In a criminal justice system that would collapse if defendants exercised their right to a jury trial, incentives and penalties expedite criminal justice. Tragically, the gap between a plea offer and the penalties associated with losing at trial motivate both the guilty and the innocent to plead guilty.
For more information, read the NRE’s November 2015 newsletter, which also speaks to the distinction between false confessions and guilty pleas, and cases of group exonerations, (here).