Sunday, August 25, 2019

GateHouse: The government’s approval of locking up the innocent

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
August 25, 2019
William R. Kelly, director of the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at the University of Texas at Austin told The Crime Report last fall, “There are situations - we don’t know how many - where individuals find themselves in a particular situation where the government claims they have certain evidence, and pleading to a crime they didn’t commit may be people’s best option.”
It seems astonishing that people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. Here are some things to consider. In the United States of America, a police officer can lie to an accused about incriminating evidence during an interrogation and elicit a confession, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said there is nothing wrong with such conduct.
Then there is the “trial penalty.” A widely lamented tool of prosecutors used to punish people who go to trial with greater sentences than similarly situated defendants who plea bargain. Plea negotiations are often clouded by the threat that conviction at trial will result in a much lengthier sentence than a plea. There are reams of data to support the existence of the trial penalty.
Most defendants who pass through the criminal justice system waive the right to a trial, and all the constitutional protections that come with being charged, in exchange for a plea bargain. Emily Yoffe wrote in The Atlantic that the vast majority of felony convictions are now the result of plea bargains - about 94% at the state level and 97% at the federal level.
To further complicate matters, funding for indigent defense has declined. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 27% of county-based and 21% of state-based public defender’s offices have enough lawyers to appropriately handle their caseloads.
The backroom lies, threats and underfunding pale in comparison to what nearly every state in the country permits in open court, and the U.S. Supreme Court sanctions - an innocent person pleading guilty to a crime.
The road to state-sanctioned imprisonment of potentially innocent individuals began in 1963 with Henry C. Alford. Alford was indicted for first-degree murder, a capital offense in North Carolina. Although he proclaimed his innocence, he pleaded guilty to killing a man with a shotgun. He said in court, “I’m not guilty, but I plead guilty.”
The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed his conviction in 1970 and forever more Henry C. Alford’s name was attached to the controversial practice of pleading guilty - an Alford plea - while claiming innocence.
The Supreme Court ruled in Alford’s case, “An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.”
Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow for Alford pleas, only New Jersey, Indiana and Michigan forbid the practice.
Alford pleas 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.
An accused proclaiming innocence should have his day in court. What does the system gain by permitting an innocent person to go to prison through the means of a lenient negotiated plea as opposed to going to trial?
Whether by Alford plea or conviction at trial the accused is wrongly imprisoned. 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.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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