Tag Archives: Guilty Plea

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

America’s Guilty Plea Problem Under Scrutiny

Innocence Organizations Launch Awareness Campaign Highlighting Broken Criminal Justice System that Pressures Innocent People to Plead Guilty


Contact:  Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, pcates@innocenceproject.org  

(New York, NY– January 23, 2017) – The Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network today launched a public education campaign, GuiltyPleaProblem.org, to aim a spotlight on the problem of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

After rising steadily over the past two decades, today 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea. As GuiltyPleaProblem.org painfully illustrates, innocent people who are trapped in the system face enormous pressures to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. A criminal justice system that routinely forces innocent people to plead guilty is unfair and unjust, and, ultimately, violates the principles intended by the Sixth Amendment.

“While it is impossible to know the full extent of the problem, the fact that more than 10 percent of the 349 people who were proven innocent by DNA testing had initially pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit tells us that there is a problem and it is extensive,” said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The system pressures people to make choices that are irrational and against their interest. As we arrest and prosecute more people, it becomes even less possible to ensure that the innocent can resist these pressures to plead. From the first moment a person is charged, all actors in the system—defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges—have an interest in a speedy resolution. While fixing this problem won’t be easy, we must find ways to lessen these pressures so that innocent people are not denied their Constitutional rights to a trial.”  

According to Innocence Project data, 11 percent of the 349 DNA exonerations involved people who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. The National Registry of Exonerations shows that 345 people have been exonerated who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit throughout the United States.  These represent the lucky few who pleaded guilty (in most cases to serious felonies) and were able to get their convictions reversed, which is especially difficult when a plea has been entered. There is no reliable data on the number of innocent people who pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, which makes up a much larger percentage of criminal convictions yet result in significant collateral consequences.   

At GuiltyPleaProblem.org, viewers will have the opportunity to watch first-person videos of four exonerees who accepted plea deals and served significant jail sentences despite being innocent.

  • Chris Ochoa: Ochoa pleaded guilty to a 1988 murder in order to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 2002 after spending 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
  • JoAnn Taylor: Taylor pleaded guilty to second degree murder to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She was exonerated in 2009 after spending 19 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.
  • Brian Banks: Banks pleaded guilty to sexual assault to avoid a 41-year prison sentence. He was eventually exonerated in 2012 with the help of the California Innocence Project.
  • Rodney Roberts: Roberts pleaded guilty to second degree kidnapping and spent 18 years in detention before being exonerated through DNA evidence.

In addition to these stories, the website features an interview with U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff who discusses some of the reasons for the rise in the percentage of cases that end in guilty pleas and how this undermines the justice system. TV star and criminal justice advocate Hill Harper is featured in a short public service announcement encouraging people to get involved and find solutions to this pressing problem.  

According to the Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network, the stories of these four innocent people are powerful reminders of the profound injustices that remain endemic to our criminal justice system. Yet, the organizations note, that there are no easy solutions for reversing the practice of guilty pleas. Today’s launch is the first of a multi-year campaign. Over the coming months, visitors will hear from experts on possible solutions to the problem.

“If every person accused of a crime demanded a trial, the system would be overwhelmed in a matter of hours,” added deLone. “While the plea system has a role to play in making the system run efficiently, we have come to rely on pleas to our detriment. The first step in correcting this profound injustice is to demonstrate the all too real harms that have resulted—and raise awareness that there is a problem to be solved.”

Visitors are encouraged to sign-up for updates on how they can become involved in fixing America’s guilty plea problem.

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Ohio Judge Michael Donnelly Advocates for Banning Factually Baseless Plea Bargains

In the following article, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael P. Donnelly argues that Ohio should join states like New Jersey and Connecticut in banning factually baseless plea bargains. A ‘factually baseless plea bargain’ is one in which the prosecution provides the accused with the option to plead to an offense other than the one charged in exchange for resolution of the case. Problematically, in order to obtain the benefit of such a deal, the accused must admit guilt for a crime they didn’t actually commit. In Hon. Donnelly’s opinion, these pleas, or “legal fictions” as they are referred to in the legal profession, amount to nothing more than lies corrupting the adversarial process.



ABA Litigation Journal 42 (Spring 2016)

Think about your favorite Hollywood film that focuses on the U.S. legal system. Now, think about that film’s climactic scene. The common thread running through nearly every great movie about our ad­ versarial system is our core belief that it centers on finding the truth behind disput­ ed facts so that justice may prevail. That is what makes the surgical precision of Tom Cruise’s cross-examination of Jack Nicholson-which at its crescendo reveals who ordered the Code Red-so powerful in my favorite film, A Few Good Men.

In reality, the hard-working attorneys who practice in our country’s criminal justice system understand that most criminal cases aren’t resolved in dramat­ ic courtroom confrontations but rather through negotiated plea agreements. These contracts are supposed to be forged after the prosecutor and defense counsel have zealously represented their clients’ interests and assessed the evidence form­ ing the basis of the allegations.

While not exactly fodder for riveting screenplays, the requirement that such negotiated agreements reflect some lev­ el of truth about what actually occurred is vital to the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system. And public con­ fidence is the lifeblood of that system-a belief that any dispute will be resolved in a fair, transparent, and efficient man­ ner consistent with the principles of truth and justice.

After 12 years on the bench, I remain in awe of the design of our adversarial pro­cess. I firmly believe that when all parties are doing their jobs correctly and a de­ tailed and accurate record is maintained, the law’s inherent procedural checks and balances and substantive protections will produce a just result. Justice comes in many forms: the guilty being held ac­ countable and punished accordingly, con­sistent with the goal of public safety; de­ fendants acquitted if the evidence fails to meet the high standard of proof beyond a one kind of plea represents a corruption of the adversarial process. In this type of plea agreement, all parties-prosecutors, defense counsel, and the court-exchange truth and justice for little more than a rapid disposition of the case. I am refer­ring to the practice of resolving crimi­nal disputes through factually baseless plea agreements. This occurs when the accused is given the opportunity to re­solve the case by pleading to an offense other than the offense charged and which they didn’t actually commit. Some in our profession euphemistically think of these as “legal fictions”; in my opinion, they’re more accurately described as lies.

Sometimes parties enter into factually baseless plea agreements with the best intentions-a belief that they’re craft­ ing a form of rough justice that wouldn’t be available if they simply went forward with trial. But in reality such agreements leave a trail of false information in the justice system that can only weaken the public’s confidence and pose a serious threat to public safety.

Over the last few years, I have chaired a subcommittee within the Ohio Judicial Conference that has studied this practice in our state’s felony court. Factually base­ less pleas occur most often in cases alleg­ ing rape and other forms of sexual assault. As all prosecutors know, these cases pose daunting obstacles. Many boil down to the victim’s sworn testimony against the ac­ cused. Prosecutors must also consider the trauma that victims will endure from be­ ing forced to rehash the events on the stand and the discomfort of a cross-examination intended to paint them as liars, or worse.

In Ohio, criminal charges like rape are associated with so-called “lesser included offenses” designed to account for similar fac­ tual scenarios covered by the most serious for in of the offense minus one or more ele­ ments of the most serious offense. Naturally, lesser included offenses are punished less severely. For example, rape in Ohio is associated with a lesser form of sexual assault known as “gross sexual imposition,” a mid­ level felony. There is also a misdemeanor of­ fense known as “sexual imposition.”

When a prosecutor offers the accused an opportunity to resolve the case by pleading to a lesser included offense, the factual basis is self-evident. If the defen­ dant committed the most serious offense, the defendant necessarily committed the lesser crime too. And prosecutors have many good reasons to consider offering a plea to a lesser included offense in a rape case. Grave concern for a victim or a lack of corroborative evidence can understand­ ably lead a prosecutor to reduce a rape charge to a lesser included offense.

But the same isn’t true of a factually baseless plea. A study I conducted of my court’s records going back five years re­ vealed hundreds of rape cases that were resolved by offering the accused the op­ portunity to plead to the crime of aggra­ vated assault, which isn’t a lesser included offense. This practice never garnered any type of scrutiny because the public is bliss­ fully unaware that aggravated assault in Ohio is a low-level felony intended to apply when the accused was seriously provoked by the person assaulted. It’s most common­ ly used to resolve felonious assault cases where it is difficult to determine who actu­ ally started the fight. Another fact buried by such resolutions is that the defendant circumvents sex-offender registration re­ quirements because the crime bears no re­lation to sexual assault.

These and other factually baseless plea agreements are an affront to the very prin­ ciple our justice system was designed to promote: the pursuit of truth and justice. To the victim, they convey the message that no one will ever believe you. To the falsely accused, they constitute a coercive offer to admit to an offense that bears no resemblance to the original accusations. Ultimately, baseless pleas contaminate the system with false information, while all end users of our justice system (future courts called to sentence the same defen­ dant for a new crime, employers, victims’ advocates, and law enforcement) should be able to rely on the information in the system as being truthful.

States Banning These Pleas

In light of the defects inherent in factu­ ally baseless pleas, Ohio is currently con­ sidering joining the federal courts and states like New Jersey and Connecticut in banning them. The proposal is modest and would require only that courts, when confronted with a plea agreement unre­ lated to the original charges, conduct an “on the record” inquiry with the parties re­ garding the facts that supposedly support the new charges. If the court determines that the allegations, if true, would support the charges, it will accept the plea. But, if the facts described would not support the proposed charge, the court would reject it. The greater transparency of this process would increase the public’s confidence that all actors in the system are remaining true to their ethical responsibilities.

The Ohio proposal has gained the sup­port of two major editorial boards, nation­ ally recognized experts in the field of legal ethics, and victims’ advocacy groups such as the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center and the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. Many state judges agree that this rule should apply to felony cases but remain reluctant to extend it to municipal courts, which have jurisdiction over misdemean­ ors and traffic violations. They fear this would clog municipal court dockets by eliminating practices like allowing people to avoid speeding tickets by “admitting” to a loud muffler charge or a similar non­ moving violation.

I believe this fear is unfounded. In Franklin County Municipal Court, the bus­iest municipal court in Ohio, the prosecu­tor’s office has rejected factually baseless pleas on its own for a number of years, per­suaded by the reasoning in Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Howe, 706 N.W.2d 360 (Iowa 2005). Instead, they use a number of innovative driver safety programs to allow normally careful driv­ ers to resolve their cases without expensive penalties, while still meeting their ethical duty to protect the public. .

Eliminating factually baseless pleas is an idea whose time has come in Ohio and perhaps elsewhere. I don’t suggest this will be a panacea for all that ails the plea negotiation process, including mandatory prison sentences, over-indicted cases, an underpaid defense bar lacking necessary investigative resources, draconian regis­tration requirements, and sometimes less than fair minded judges. All of these have been cited by practitioners as reasons for legal fictions to continue. While issues like these must be addressed in any effort to im­prove- the criminal justice system, the truth should never become a sacrificial lamb in the process of reform. Any assertion that we, the guardians of our justice system, can’t handle the truth should be met with the resounding response: “Yes, we can!”



Blume and Helm on Innocent Defendants Who Plead Guilty

John H. Blume of Cornell University and Rebecca K. Helm have posted the article “The Unexonerated: Factually Innocent Defendants Who Plead Guilty”, Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper (July, 2012) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Several recent high profile cases, including the case of the West Memphis Three, have revealed (again), that factually innocent defendants do plead guilty. And, more disturbingly in many of the cases, the defendant’s innocence is known, or at least highly suspected at the time the plea is entered. Innocent defendants plead guilty most often, but not always, in two sets of cases: first, low level offenses where a quick guilty plea provides the key to the cellblock door; and second, cases where defendants have been wrongfully convicted, prevail on appeal, and are then offered a plea bargain which will assure their immediate or imminent release. There are three primary contributing factors leading a criminal justice system where significant numbers of innocent defendants plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The first is the perceived need that all defendants must plead. The second is the current draconian sentencing regime for criminal offenses. And, the final contributing factor is that plea bargaining is, for the most part, an unregulated industry. This article discusses cases in which innocent defendants plead guilty to obtain their release, thus joining the “unexonerated” and then propose several options the criminal justice system should embrace to avoid, or at least ameliorate the plight of innocent defendants who plead guilty.