January 9, 2024
Everyday throughout America, people plead guilty to
crimes they did not commit. There are countless stories of people who have been
exonerated after spending years in prison for crimes to which they pleaded
Why would an innocent person plead guilty to a crime?
It is not because the police have returned to the era
of the "third degree," beating suspects with rubber hoses to elicit
confessions. Absent some egregious exceptions, police and prosecutors are not
torturing suspects into admissions of guilt.
Law enforcement doesn't have to resort to such
tactics. People charged with a crime, and represented by counsel, freely and
voluntarily plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.
The convergence of three things in the criminal justice
system makes the seemingly impossible — innocent people pleading guilty —
routine. Sentence guidelines, plea bargains and the "trial penalty"
have created the perfect storm of injustice.
A sentence imposed by a judge is not solely within the
discretion of the judge. A majority of states and the federal government
utilize guidelines in sentencing. A sentence imposed by a judge is not solely
within the discretion of the judge.
Sentence guidelines consist of a grid with two values,
the prior history score and gravity score. A defendant with a history of
criminal convictions will receive a numerical score — the more prior
convictions, the higher the score. Each crime has a gravity score. The more
serious the offense, the higher the score. The presumptive range of sentence is
determined by where the two values meet on a grid.
An accused with a long criminal record, suspected of a
serious crime, could face a hefty sentence under the guidelines.
In steps the plea bargain. Crime victims despise those
two words; defense attorneys thrive on them; and prosecutors can't survive
without them. Politicians deride the system because of the underhanded
"deals" made with vicious criminals. Even frontline police officers
challenge prosecutors when they perceive that the terms of a plea bargain are
There are compelling reasons to plea bargain.
Prosecutors are intimately familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of every
case. There are circumstances where a plea to a lesser offense is better than a
not-guilty verdict. A reluctant witness or a poor witness may also influence
How can a plea bargain convince an innocent person to
plead guilty? The "trial penalty" is the tipping point. Every person
charged with a crime has the constitutional right to face a jury of his or her
peers. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to trial. However, those who
chose to go to trial, instead of accepting a plea bargain, are often penalized
by a much harsher sentence.
The formula for getting the innocent to plead guilty
is simple. It goes like this: A guy living in a seedy neighborhood, with a
criminal history, is accused of a burglary. He is innocent. His criminal record
and the seriousness of the offense would result in a guideline sentence of five
to 10 years in prison.
The evidence against him is shaky or nonexistent. The
prosecutor offers a plea bargain to a lesser offense with a sentence of one to
two years. Although he is innocent, if he goes to trial and gets convicted, he
could face a sentence even beyond the presumptive guideline range. The guy
faces a Hobson's choice: plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit or face the
possibility of years languishing in prison after a conviction.
A 2014 report by the National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers found, "There is ample evidence that . . . defendants are
being coerced to plead guilty because the (trial) penalty for exercising their
constitutional rights is simply too high to risk. This 'trial penalty' results
from the discrepancy between the sentence the prosecutor is willing to offer in
exchange for a guilty plea and the sentence that would be imposed after a
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
www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino
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