When an Innocent Person Accepts a Plea Bargain
Getting arrested and charged with a crime can be one of the scariest things to happen to a person. But what if that person is truly, factually innocent of the crime? When faced with a sentence of decades in prison, even an innocent person may carefully consider a plea bargain that would shorten that time in prison to only a few years. And when the prosecution offers no jail, such a plea bargain may be too tempting to pass up.
Plea Bargains and Innocent Defendants
In the US, plea bargaining has become the primary way to resolve criminal cases. Specifically, nearly 98% of convictions nationwide come from guilty pleas. Yet when it comes to the country’s record of exonerations of innocent people, 26% of the more than 3,000 people exonerated since 1989 pleaded guilty. In New York, 321 people have been exonerated since 1989. Of those cases, 23 had accepted a plea bargain.
When it comes to pursing claims of innocence post-conviction in New York, defendants who plead guilty cannot challenge their convictions on innocence grounds unless they have DNA evidence to prove their innocence. Notably, however, of those 321 exonerations in New York, only 51 (16%) involved DNA.
Now, a bill titled the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act has been proposed in New York. If this bill becomes law, it will allow those have accepted a plea bargain to re-open their cases under a claim of innocence. Additionally, the bill would provide a right to counsel for those with wrongful conviction claims and a right to post-conviction discovery. Earlier in 2023, the bill passed the NY State Assembly.
Bar Association Report on Plea Bargains
In 2019, a Plea Bargain Task Force was formed by the American Bar Association (“ABA”) to take a critical look at the plea bargain system. Earlier this year, the task force released a report with its findings. The report lists fourteen “principles,” which have the purpose of promoting transparency, accountability, justice, and legitimacy in the criminal legal system. Some of these principles include:
- Guilty pleas should not result from the use of impermissibly coercive incentives or incentives that overbear the will of the defendant.
- A substantial difference between sentence pre-trial and post-trial undermines the integrity of the legal system. This differential, often referred to as the trial penalty, should be eliminated.
- Charges against the defendant should not have the purpose of inducing a defendant to plead guilty.
- Plea bargaining induces defendants to plead guilty for various reasons, some of which have little or nothing to do with factual and legal guilt.
- Attorneys should be afforded a meaningful opportunity to satisfy their obligations in defending the accused without risk of penalty to their client.
- The use of bail or pretrial detention to induce guilty pleas should be eliminated.
- Defendants should receive all available discovery, including exculpatory materials, prior to entry of a guilty plea, and should have sufficient time to review such discovery before being required to accept or reject a plea offer.
Case Studies on Plea Bargains and the Innocent
A new podcast Clearing the Record: Innocent Yet Convicted aims to tell some of these stories. Unfortunately, in the US there are many people who plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. In the first episode of the podcast, we learn about Troy, who faced a sentence of 99 years to life in prison when he was accused of molesting a child.
Under immense pressure and after being worn down by the system, Troy pleaded guilty when offered a sentence of 120 days in jail and 10 years probation with the requirement he register as a sex offender. However, Troy maintained that he did not commit this crime. Notably, the prosecutor in Troy’s case was later disbarred and prosecuted for hiding evidence in other cases.
So why did Troy plead guilty? The odds were stacked against him, as the county prosecutors had a “100% conviction rate.” He didn’t want to take the chance that he wouldn’t be there for his wife and kids. After his guilty plea, Troy realized how much his decision impacted those around him, including financial and emotional struggles. Fortunately, Troy’s conviction was vacated in 2016 when it was discovered prosecutors had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence.
Additionally, a team is preparing to release a documentary, Wilco: Innocent Yet Convicted, about Troy and the issue of pleading guilty when innocent. You can read more about Troy’s story and the film at www.wilcodoc.com, and you can donate to the project at www.chuffed.org/project/wilcodoc.
- Senate Bill S215 (2023-2024 NY Legislative Session), Relates to motions to vacate judgment; repealer. Available at: https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2023/S215 (last accessed May 25, 2023).
- Adnan Sultan, “Opinion: The problem with plea bargains and how NY can help the innocent,” City & State NY (May 22, 2023). Available at: https://www.cityandstateny.com/opinion/2023/05/opinion-problem-plea-bargains-and-how-ny-can-help-innocent/386601/ (last accessed May 25, 2023).
- ABA CJS Plea Bargaining Task Force, 2023 Plea Bargain Task Force Report. Available at: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/criminaljustice/plea-bargain-tf-report.pdf (last accessed May 25, 2023).
Image: Free public domain CC0 photo.