The concept of an innocent person pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit is initially incomprehensible and at odds with many Americans’ beliefs about our criminal justice system. That’s why the National Registry of Exonerations’ November report focusing on false guilty pleas is difficult to absorb. An earlier report this week on this blog quantified instances of false guilty pleas from the report; this one attempts to clarify this kind of miscarriage.
The Registry’s report is not about guilty people pleading to lesser charges. To reiterate and clarify, it documents instances in which people pleaded guilty even though they were neither guilty of the crime they were accused of, nor the crime they ultimately pleaded guilty to. They weren’t accessories, accomplices, or otherwise involved. They were innocent. In spite of pleading guilty, their innocence was eventually officially recognized, and they met the strict requirements for inclusion in the Exoneration Registry.
The short explanation for why innocent people plead guilty is that they believe they have no better option. (This fact alone invites the best minds in criminal justice to seek better policies to assure fairness and accuracy in justice.)
Most exonerated people on the Registry were wrongly convicted of major felonies — sexual assault and murder. These cases usually required years of pro bono work by lawyers, investigators, family, and friends, because it is very difficult to reverse a conviction. As of today, the Registry lists 1,709 persons exonerated in the U.S. since 1989. Of these, 702 or 41% were wrongly convicted of murder. Of these, 115 were sentenced to death. There are no false guilty pleas in this latter group, most likely because no plea that would avoid the death penalty was offered or accepted. These people escaped execution either because their sentence was commuted or they were exonerated before the State completed plans to execute them.
Why would anyone plead guilty to a crime he did not commit? What remedies could reduce occurrences of this miscarriage?
People decide to falsely plead guilty — which is similar but viewed differently from another red flag of injustice, providing a false confession — for many different reasons, and numerous suggested remedies address causal issues.
The first recommendations resulting from DNA-proven wrongful convictions focused on implementing best practices in criminal justice procedures — interrogations, lineups, evidence retention, etc. — to ensure that evidence is as reliable as possible and is accessible to both prosecution and defense even after conviction. We have seen some progress, but best practices are far from universal acceptance in the United States.
Best procedural practices would reduce false guilty pleas, because when evidence is very compelling but nonetheless unreliable, the accused may conclude he has no opportunity to win at trial. If he is convicted at trial, he’ll generally face a tougher sentence — sometimes much tougher — than if he had taken a plea deal.
This gap between plea offer and sentence after trial conviction is sometimes referred to as the “trial penalty.” The trial penalty can mean decades longer in prison than the sentence implied or offered in the plea negotiation. The broad discretion afforded the prosecutor in charging defendants (and in the stacking of counts at sentencing) should be reviewed and measured so as to make certain the trial penalty is not so punishing that it prompts innocent people to falsely plead guilty rather than exercise the right to trial in worthy cases.
We’ve witnessed people suddenly jailed as a result of being pulled over for a traffic violation, such as neglecting to signal a lane change. If this person is unable to make bail, she faces the possibility of spending days, months, even years in jail before her case is adjudicated. Countless persons who’ve not been convicted of anything are sitting in jail today. Aside from the anxiety that comes with being locked up, if confined for even a few days or weeks, the accused may suffer hardships such as losing her job, transportation, and/or home. Even worse, the potential of having no childcare, or of losing custody of one’s children, can prompt signing a plea deal, even pleading guilty to a crime one did not commit.
A spate of false guilty pleas related to drug possession was discovered in Harris County, Texas, when drug testing later revealed that the alleged drugs were not controlled substances after all. While Innocence work has focused on the most serious felonies, this anomaly in the Registry in lower level crimes suggests an untold number of miscarriages via false guilty pleas in similar and other lesser crimes nationally.
When jailing people before trial or plea negotiations, we must consider when such detention becomes an unnecessary hardship that falls unevenly on the poor who cannot make bail, diminishing the opportunity for accurate justice without providing any real safety advantage for the community.
Similarly, we must review the bail bond industry and other businesses that profit from today’s incarceration of one in every 100 adult Americans (The Pew Center), and watch the influence these businesses have on public policy.
The creation of many new laws, the impact of so-called tough-on-crime policies, the explosive growth in the prison population, and the sheer volume of criminal cases mandated an increase in plea bargaining for case resolution at the expense of trials by jury. This cannot reasonably change any time soon. Plea negotiation can be an effective means of resolving a good percentage of cases, but the system must always guard against abuses while providing defendants’ due process rights in plea negotiations as if at trial.
For most Americans widespread confidence in the American criminal justice system is part of our heritage and national pride. We must guard against resulting complacency that can diminish our grasp of reality in a criminal justice system that has changed significantly in the past few decades. Our justice system requires citizen diligence as much as any other part of government or any other service industry in this nation.
Thomas Jefferson’s wise advice about freedom applies equally to justice: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”