Matthew T. Mangino
The Harrisburg Patriot-News
May 15, 2013
Why should you be concerned about men and women pleading guilty to crimes they claim they did not commit?
The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, released its first report analyzing 873 exonerations between January 1989 and February 2012.
In the 873 cases that were studied, the registry found the most common reasons for wrongful conviction were perjury or false accusation (51 percent), mistaken witness identification (43 percent) and official misconduct (42 percent).
Since January 1, there have been a number of high-profile examples of exonerations after long prison stays for convictions that, in part, were based on faulty eyewitness identification.
David Ranta was freed from prison in March after serving 23 years of a 37.5 year sentence for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi in 1990. Ranta’s lawyers had successfully argued that the police had coached an eyewitness to pick Ranta out of a line-up.
John Edward Smith spent 19 years behind bars. A former gang member, Smith adamantly maintained his innocence of murder. A wrongful convictions group, Innocence Matters, took his case and identified problems with the testimony of the lone witness that identified him as the killer. The witness recanted and a Los Angeles County Court vacated his conviction.
Randolph Arledge was sentenced to 99 years in prison in 1984 for a killing in Texas. He spent 28 years in prison until prosecutors recently agreed that he was not guilty after new DNA tests tied someone else to the crime.
More than 75,000 prosecutions every year are based entirely on the recollections of others. The overwhelming majority of eyewitness errors are not conscious or intentional. The misidentifications are the inevitable side effects of the process of remembering.
In recent years, neuroscientists have documented how these mistakes happen. According Johan Lehrer of the Wall Street Journal, “[O]ur recollections are always being altered, the details of the past warped by our present feelings and knowledge. The more you remember an event, the less reliable that memory becomes.”
Innocent people get convicted. That is an inevitable shortcoming in the system. Innocent people plead guilty—because they perceive a plea as the lesser of two evils—that is unconscionable.
State sanctioned imprisonment of the potentially innocent began in 1963 with Henry C. Alford. Alford, while pleading guilty to killing a man, said in court, “I’m not guilty but I plead guilty.” The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in North Carolina v. Alford.
Alford pleas, as they became known, permit a defendant to concede that the prosecution can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt while maintaining innocence. The prosecution then provides the factual basis for the guilty plea by providing the court with detailed documentation that the accused is guilty. The judge must decide whether there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction.
How prevalent are Alford pleas? In 2009, Allison D. Redlich and Asil Ali Ozdogru wrote in Alford Pleas in the Age of Innocence, six percent of state prisoners and three percent of federal prisoners entered Alford pleas. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow for the Alford pleas, only New Jersey, Indiana and Michigan forbid the procedure.
There is no justification for permitting an individual to plead guilty, while claiming innocence, simply to allow that person to negotiate a less severe criminal sentence than may be imposed if the accused maintained her innocence, went to trial and was convicted.
A conviction at trial of an innocent person is a mistake. An Alford plea is tacit governmental approval of locking away a potentially innocent person.
There is no place in the criminal justice system for permitting individuals who claim innocence to plead guilty and go to prison.
Matthew T. Mangino is an attorney with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George in New Castle, Pa. He is the former district attorney for Lawrence County and a former member of the state Board of Probation and Parole.
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