Many people have reservations when they hear criminal defendants claim to be innocent even though they pled guilty. Some can’t imagine anything that could convince them to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit.
The reality is that innocent people are pressured or coerced into pleading guilty far more often than you might expect. In our criminal justice system, around 95 percent of felony charges are resolved via guilty pleas. Our courts could not operate without those pleas, and prosecutors often secure them by raising the stakes of going to trial so high that defendants are afraid to risk a trial.
PBS News Hour recently profiled two brothers from Chicago, Juan and Henry Johnson. Thirty years ago, they were wrongfully convicted of murder. Together, they had tried to break up a fight. After they left, that fight resulted in a man’s death.
Juan was pulled in for a lineup even though he looked nothing like the witness descriptions. Nevertheless, he was picked out as one of the killers. When Henry came to the station to bail Juan out, he was arrested, too.
“It was like a truck hitting you in the chest,” Juan said of being wrongfully accused.
Against the evidence, they were convicted and sent to prison. They fired their lawyer and hired a new one. The new lawyer fully investigated the case for the first time and found a wealth of evidence and witnesses that cleared the brothers, but it took three appeals before their convictions were thrown out.
They were to be retried, however. Just as the new trial was set to begin, prosecutors offered the brothers a plea deal. If they would plead guilty to second-degree murder, they would be sentenced to time served. Take the deal and you can walk free.
The brothers agonized over the decision. Deeply scarred by his time behind bars and afraid a loss at trial could send him back, Henry ultimately accepted the deal. Juan insisted on a trial.
At trial, it was revealed that this was more than a case of mistaken identity. The brothers had been framed by infamous Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara, who may be one of the most corrupt cops in Chicago history, according to PBS. At least 11 other Guevara defendants have been exonerated in just the last two years.
Juan was acquitted at trial, which meant he was eligible for $20 million in wrongful conviction damages. He is considered innocent, while Henry is still considered guilty.
Henry’s lawyer is preparing an appeal of his conviction based on all the exonerations connected to former detective Guevara. He pled guilty because he was afraid to spend more time behind bars. It remains to be seen if he will ever receive justice.