Several recent high profile cases, including the case of the West Memphis Three, have revealed (again), that factually innocent defendants do plead guilty. And, more disturbingly in many of the cases, the defendant’s innocence is known, or at least highly suspected at the time the plea is entered. Innocent defendants plead guilty most often, but not always, in two sets of cases: first, low level offenses where a quick guilty plea provides the key to the cellblock door; and second, cases where defendants have been wrongfully convicted, prevail on appeal, and are then offered a plea bargain which will assure their immediate or imminent release. There are three primary contributing factors leading a criminal justice system where significant numbers of innocent defendants plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The first is the perceived need that all defendants must plead. The second is the current draconian sentencing regime for criminal offenses. And, the final contributing factor is that plea bargaining is, for the most part, an unregulated industry. This article discusses cases in which innocent defendants plead guilty to obtain their release, thus joining the “unexonerated” and then propose several options the criminal justice system should embrace to avoid, or at least ameliorate the plight of innocent defendants who plead guilty.The case of Kerry Max Cook provides a vivid case study of an episode where "defendants have been wrongfully convicted, prevail on appeal, and are then offered a plea bargain which will assure their immediate or imminent release." But less frequently discussed are low-level offenses where defendants enter pleas just to get out of jail and get their cases over with.
That second category of innocence cases - that are typically beyond the current purview of "innocence projects," which because of a lack of resources focus on the most serious cases - is bigger than it should be because of the common practice of requiring bail for low-risk defendants, which puts pressure on them to plea out to gain their release. Last year in Harris County, for example, Grits reported recently that, "27,635 people, or 46% of misdemeanor defendants couldn't make bail and remained in jail either until they pleaded out or their case was otherwise resolved. Among felony defendants, 69% could not make bail and remained incarcerated until their cases were disposed." Those are precisely the categories of offenders who are most likely to include innocent people who enter guilty pleas out of convenience and/or cost-benefit analysis as opposed to criminal culpability.
H/T: CrimProf Blog.