In the criminal justice world, there is something we refer to as the "trial penalty." It is a penalty, in the form of a harsher sentence, for anyone who demands a trial and is then found guilty. In almost every case, defendants convicted at trial are sentenced to far longer than people who accept plea bargains.
If you were charged with a misdemeanor, you might decide to plead guilty just to get out of jail and go home. By definition, the penalty for a misdemeanor must be less than a year behind bars, and most people receive far less than that. In many cases, a guilty plea results in no jail time at all.
Imagine how you would feel if you were sent to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Now, imagine how the victim would feel upon learning the wrong person was put behind bars and the real perpetrator is free.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and a law firm filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Milwaukee Police department of operating a "vast and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program" that targeted African-Americans and Latinos. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of six plaintiffs who had been stopped, sometimes multiple times, by officers with no reasonable suspicion that they were involved in criminal behavior.
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.
A Junction City, Wisconsin, man has been free on bail since a Dane County judge overturned his conviction 11 months ago. Richard Beranek, now 59, was convicted in 1990 on charges of rape, battery and burglary, even though six witnesses testified that he was in North Dakota when the crime took place. He was sentenced to 243 years in prison and served 29 years.
When Francisco Carrillo, Jr., was falsely convicted of a fatal drive-by shooting, it was the result of an improper eyewitness identification. A Sheriff's deputy brought in the 15-year-old eyewitness, showed him a single photo and said it was their lead suspect.
We have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about faulty forensic science contributing to wrongful convictions. Numerous instances of crime lab scandals between 2000 and 2008, including multiple instances of fraud and error, resulted in Congress funding an in-depth investigation and review of the forensic science disciplines and related forensic laboratory practice.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 139 people were exonerated of crimes in the U.S. last year. Some 2,100 have been exonerated since 1989, when DNA evidence was first used to exonerate someone. Today, people are being found innocent using a variety of methods that don't always involve DNA, but the principle remains the same: Sometimes, the criminal justice system convicts innocent people.
David Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, but it seems that conviction was wrongful. The state said he shot a woman from his hometown in 2000. The victim was killed outside a bar she owned with her fiancée, perhaps over $300 in receipts. Robinson was sentenced to life without parole.