In a 2013 article for The New York Review of Books, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff writes that “of the 2.2 million Americans in prison, over 2 million are there because of plea bargains.” He also contends that somewhere between 2 and 8 percent of those people are innocent but pled guilty. You may wonder why an innocent person would plead guilty, but in reality, it happens all the time.
Pleading Guilty in Exchange for a Reduced Sentence
In a recent accidental homicide in Wisconsin, the shooter who pled innocent was found guilty of first-degree offenses at trial and received a 65-year prison sentence. The shooter whose defense attorney negotiated a plea deal with the prosecutor pled guilty to less serious offenses and received a 30-year prison sentence.
If you have been charged with a misdemeanor, pleading guilty may get your sentence reduced to probation, community service and/or treatment – an attractive option considering the alternative.
Pleading Guilty to Avoid Trial
A Texas man who chose not to accept a plea bargain was recently convicted and given a 40-year sentence. The plea deal would have allowed him to walk free but he assumed that after a fair trial he’d be exonerated. When it is clear to your defense attorney that a jury will likely convict you even if you are innocent, he can negotiate a plea deal with the prosecutor. Although your defense attorney must keep you apprised of any plea discussions, he has probably had prior experience with the prosecutor and can provide you with invaluable input.
A Fair Trial
There are myriad opinions on what constitutes a truly fair trial. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in a 2012 decision that, “If there is no trial, there can be no fair trial.” Conversely, in a 2014 article for The Marshall Project, U.S. District Judge John L. Kane writes, “the so-called trial court is not primarily a trial court at all. It is a plea bargaining court.”
Your decision whether or not to accept a plea bargain must be a personal one, made in consultation with your attorney. However, due to high conviction rates at trial, the expense of a drawn-out trial, and mandatory minimum sentencing, it is not unusual for innocent defendants to plead guilty.