Why We Encourage The Innocent To Plead Guilty

How many innocent men and women are sitting in prison? No one knows, exactly, and few care. A person who’s been found guilty by a jury had their trial, right? And if they’ve lost their appeal, well, doesn’t that settle it once and for all?

We know better, of course. The Innocence Project has helped to prove that. Scores of men have been released from prison after DNA evidence conclusively proved their innocence. Many of these men were convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

But what about those who pleaded guilty in open court? Don’t they deserve even less consideration than those found guilty? Innocent men don’t confess to crimes they did not commit, right?

We know better about that, too. A gathering body of evidence suggests that even innocent people confess to crimes. They do so for all sorts of reasons. Some are mentally ill, and crave the attention the confessional process yields. Others, typically the intellectually disabled, can be tricked. Sometimes folks are simply confused. Even so, confessions are regarded as the gold standard of proof by law enforcement.

To help yield confessions, officers are encouraged to get training in interrogation and interviewing techniques. This training teaches them how to build rapport with suspects, how to ask them questions designed to yield incriminating responses. Proponents of the so-called Reid Technique attend trainings all over the country, even Connecticut. The focus of this training is learning how to persuade folks to confess, even when confessing is against the interest of the suspect.

As if all this were not bad enough, our courts encourage the entry of guilty pleas by permitting defendants to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed. The law has a name for such pleas — Alford pleas, so named after a Supreme Court case sanctioning such practices.

Any defendant who wants to plead guilty must appear before a judge and answer a series of questions intended to convince the judge that the defendant is entering his plea voluntarily, and of his own free will. This process is called a canvass, or a plea colloquy. Ideally, a defendant enters a plea only after discussing his case with his lawyer. The lawyer cuts the best possible deal he can for his client. At the end of the bargaining, the client decides to accept or reject the last best effort the state has made.

It is all too common in criminal cases for clients to balk at making a choice on whether to plea. Too many folks regard the plea bargaining process as a trip to the market — they aren’t buying anything unless the price is right. That’s a horrible analogy for what goes on in the criminal courts. Better to regard the defendant as tied to a train track; unless his lawyer can derail the locomotive bearing down upon him, he will be crushed. More than 90 percent of cases are resolved by way of a plea bargain, well before a jury has the chance to decide the issues.

Does that mean all of these folks are, in fact, guilty of the crimes to which they have pleaded?

No. Not by a long shot.

The state tells a judge at the time of a plea what facts the state believes it could have proven if the case had gone to trial. A judge cannot accept a guilty plea unless there is a factual basis for it.

In what lawyers call a “straight” guilty plea, a defendant simply pleads “guilty” and the case proceeds to sentencing.

But suppose a defendant does not agree that he did what the state alleges? In other words, suppose a defendant listens to an factual recitation and says, “I didn’t do that.” Can he still plead guilty?

The answer is simple: Yes. It happens all the time.

A defense lawyer alerts the court that his client is entering an Alford plea. The judge then questions the client and asks, in effect, if the client is pleading guilty despite the fact he disagrees with the state’s factual basis. Is he doing so because he is being offered a sentence likely far better than what he’d get if a jury found him guilty? In other words, is the client trying to avoid the risk of trial?

If the client says yes, the deal is struck, regardless of his actual guilt or innocence. An innocent man can plead guilty.

Most folks have no idea that this practice is routine in many courts. In Connecticut, almost every judge in the state court system happily accepts an Alford plea: These pleas do, after all, close cases and move the docket. I’ve seen Alford pleas entered at something approaching the cognitive speed of light, a factual basis presented by the state, the defendant canvassed, and a finding of guilty made in five minutes. It’s the fastest form of assembly justice.

But no federal judge in Connecticut, or elsewhere in the country, is inclined to accept an Alford plea without a fight. In the federal system, guilty pleas are elaborate affairs, with sentencing hearings rarely taking less than 45 minutes, and sometimes lasting days. Federal judges take pains to make sure that folks only plead guilty because they are, in fact, guilty. This is in part a function of the detailed, and complex, law governing federal sentencing procedures, a system in which offense, offense conduct and defendant characteristics are reduced to numerical points, those points being used to find the right sentence on a table.

I suspect that plenty of innocent plead guilty in the state system. They do so for all sorts of reasons having nothing to do with actual guilt or innocence. I’ve met men who entered guilty pleas simply because they were weary, terrified of spending more time in prison, where they’ve moldered for months, sometimes for years, waiting for trials that never came. Some folks enter guilty pleas just to close a bad chapter in an otherwise good life.

A complex body of law has emerged governing how courts should determine whether confessions are voluntary. We ought to regard guilty pleas as a form of confession, and apply the same standards in determining whether a person pleading guilty is doing so for the right reasons. An important aid in this effort would be a far more sparing use of Alford pleas. If that results in a large backlog of cases, perhaps we ought to ask why the criminal justice system produces so many more cases than can be expeditiously handled. Perhaps too many folks are charged with crimes; I doubt we are truly a nation of criminals.

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Comments: (6)

  • My son in prison
    My son is in prison or something he didn't even do that doesn't even make sense he doesn't even qualify for the programs to get early release because he's never done drugs or anything he's only 20 years old he has a baby at home he was fighting it going to go to trial because he's innocent and they told him if he didn't take the deal they offered then he was going to do 25 years and him being naive not knowing anything about the system he was scared so we took the deal name is Richard Scott hook his cases out of Lane County somebody please help him he's got a family at home he's a good kid young man he loves and cares for everybody erase his own sisters they have them in there Ford attempted sexual assault because he was when he was 14 supposably he tried to touch his girlfriend's butt when they were making out
    Posted on October 13, 2020 at 10:11 am by Lisa Miller
  • Broken
    The legal system, as it has nothing to do with justice and hasn't for a long time, is broken. Possibly from its inception. Attorneys being judged by former attorneys, then if they make any mistakes they are reprimanded by more attorneys. In what other profession are professionals allowed to audit themselves so completely? There are none, for all those other audited professions, medical, law enforcement, etc all needed to have lawyers to navigate the turbulent waters.
    The only reason that there are innocent men and women in prison is because the Law Enforcement officers and Prosecuting offices do not thoroughly investigate the cases they get to find the TRUTH rather than just the evidence needed to win the position they have chosen.
    It makes me embarassed to be a human being, considering the things we'll do to each other in the name of 'the law'.
    Posted on December 2, 2013 at 10:08 am by Reform
  • Defense Attorney
    Another side of plea bargains is the profit to the defense attorney. We paid a large amount upfront to my sons lawyer. They battered him to take the 5-8 year plea even though he maintained his innocence. They threatened him with a possible 30 yr sentence and told him he was stupid not to plead guilty. After agonizing discussions between our family members and my son , he chose to decline and chose trial. His lawyers did no pretrial investigation or defense work. So my son requested a change of counsel which was denied by the Federal judge. My son got 15 yrs and lifetime supervision. Defense attorneys want to do as little work as possible which increases their profit. This is why they push their clients to take pleas.
    Posted on November 16, 2013 at 12:02 pm by mom
  • the innocent "guilty"
    the system is foul. as front and center this week (Ryan Ferguson), prosecutors can lie, cheat and withhold pertinent evidence, not be held accountable, while thousands are either forced to enter a plea or pay dearly for attempting to prove their innocence.
    Posted on November 14, 2013 at 5:33 pm by Atticus
  • Guilty Until Proven Innocent
    My dad was convicted a long time ago for a crime he says he did not commit. There was no DNA evidence to prove his innocence; in fact the only real evidence was the sole word of the victim saying something happened against the sole word of my father saying it did not happen. As time has passed, my father has never changed his story and always had he did not commit the crime. This has actually been used against him 10, 20 even 30 years later; the government saying he is a greater danger to the public because he continues saying he was innocent; even though he has never been convicted of any other crimes.
    Please consider looking at my story at http://childhood-destroyed-for-what.com/01-000-000-my-story.html.
    If people don’t learn about what is happening and speak out, nothing will change for the better.
    Posted on November 14, 2013 at 9:35 am by Kat
  • Missing
    Mr. Pattis: I only find one thing missing in your post that is supremely relevant to the issue you write about. I am a "convicted" felon and did take my case to jury trial with the possibility of spending the remainder of my life behind bars due to "the stacking of charges." Prosecutors stack as many charges as possible on defendants in order to coerce them into guilty pleas, because the fear of loss might mean 40-50 years in prison vs. 10 or less with the plea bargain offered. The mental pressure is great on the defendant, because as you mention, many an innocent man is convicted in a jury trial.
    Posted on November 14, 2013 at 6:09 am by RSO

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