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Why Do Innocent People Plead Guilty?

The criminal justice system in this country bears little resemblance to what the Founding Fathers envisioned. To them, the crucial part of the system was the jury trial, which served not only as a truth-seeking mechanism, but also a shield against tyranny.

The 6th Amendment guarantees that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury." The Constitution further guarantees that at the trial, the accused will have the assistance of counsel, who can confront and cross-examine his accusers and present evidence on the accuser's behalf.

To everyone's amusement, the drama and theatre of the courtroom jury trial is regularly played out on television and in movies. However, for the most part, it is not real.

The drama and myth of the American courtroom trial is, for the most part, an outdated myth. It's a mirage.

In reality, our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining. These pleas are negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. As a result, the outcome of a criminal case is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone. For example, in 2013, 97 percent of non-dismissed federal charges were resolved though plea bargains, and fewer than 3 percent went to trial. The plea bargains largely determined the sentences imposed.

Even more disturbing, roughly 10 percent of those defendants who have later been exonerated by DNA evidence through the efforts of the Innocence Project, pled guilty to a crime they did not commit!

What leads a person to do this? Hon. Jed S. Rakoss, United States District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York, examines this question in a recent article. Judge Rakoff believes that there are various institutional pressures that lead innocent people to plead guilty, including the threat of mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutorial limitations placed on judicial sentencing discretion by charging (or not charging) offenses that carry certain sentences, the imbalance of resources and available information between the prosecution and the defense, and in federal court, the prohibition on the judge's involvement in the plea negotiation process.

Generally, the typical person accused of the crimes combines a troubled part with limited resources. Sometimes, even if he knows he is innocent, the chances of mounting an effective defense at trial may be modest at best. So, a defendant's decision to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit may represent a rational, cost-benefit analysis of the situation. If his lawyer can get a plea bargain with a reduced amount of prison time, he may find that it makes sense to take the plea.

This system of prosecutor-determined plea bargaining is a problem. It is one-sided. Our criminal justice system is premised on the notion that, before we deprive a person of liberty, he will have "his day in court."  If you or someone you love has been accused of a crime and now demands an attorney that will be willing to put the government to its proof and present favorable facts and arguments on your behalf, contact a lawyer at Aidala & Bertuna P.C. for a free consultation.

There is concern that the plea bargaining system that we have substituted for our constitutional ideals has been rigged. The Constitution stressed that only after a jury of your peers determines that you are guilty of a crime, will an appropriate sentence be determined by a neutral judge.

For the full article and an interesting read, click here.

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