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Why Innocent People Often Plead Guilty
August 3, 2018 by Ed Brayton
Copyright 2008-2017, Patheos. All rights reserved
Editorial blog source; excerpts follow
Underlying report source


The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers when facing any criminal charges. That's the fantasy. The reality? Less than 3% of all criminal trials ever involve a trial, with the rest being settled by a guilty plea. But a new report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reveals that a great many innocent people are pleading guilty due to a lack of competent representation and the perverse incentives inherent in our current (in)justice system.

(Report cites excluded for brevity; see above link)

I've seen this in operation first hand, having spent a day "shadowing" a public defender many years ago. More than 95% of all criminal defendants can't afford an attorney, so they have a public defender, but they are always underfunded and overstretched, handling hundreds of cases at a time. They literally hold what looks like a cattle call audition, with people just lined up around the block. They step up to the table, give the PD their name and he looks for a folder with that name on it. He tells them what the prosecutor is offering and almost always suggests that they take the deal or they'll face far stiffer penalties if they go to trial…

Justice is not even hypothetically possible in this situation. We must invest the resources to level the playing field. Public defenders should have equal funding to the prosecutor's office, which means the same ability to hire enough attorneys to handle a reasonable number of cases at a time, to hire investigators and experts to seek out and evaluate evidence, the same support staff to facilitate a competent defense. Anything less is a recipe for injustice. Guilty pleas have their place in our justice system, of course, but they should not be the norm. The norm should be a trial by jury with competent, capable representation.

Editorial blog source
Underlying report source

Although I don't always agree with Brayton, he often has interesting things to say. "Justice inequity" is something that should concern all of us; it is contrary to the enlightened founding tenets of this great nation and, frankly, contrary to common sense and fairness. "Might" does not necessarily make "right", and neither does money. Justice is blind and cannot be purchased; and if it IS purchased, then it's not Justice.

I don't believe that insisting our Government treat all folks equitably is some kind of "liberal whine"; either everyone is "created equal" or they are not. Albeit, in our nation's history, this was often observed in the breach; we have grown into a greater understanding of the humanity of us all. The Golden Rule of treating others how we would like to be treated still applies; and is still essential to our status and leadership on this planet.

Brayton's "invest the resources" advice is not likely to become policy anytime soon; it is idealistic but not pragmatic. In the current political environment, "resources" are being exploited for the benefit of the few. I don't claim to have the answer but I do think that a little more compassion and empathy could go a long way.

What if it was someone YOU cared about who was facing arguable or unjust charges?

7 Comments On This Entry

If I was ever GENUINELY innocent, I don't think I'd ever cop a plea. At least, not on something major.

(And if my opinion on this sounds "all over the map" it's because, well, it is; This is not a topic where emotion and reason both lead me to the same conclusion)

On the one hand, there will NEVER be genuine 100% equity; There will ALWAYS be the OJs of the world who can be involved in a cold-blooded murder and then hire Kim Kardashian's dad to get them off. There will also ALWAYS be the poor schmucks who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I think these are 'outliers'.

The 'norm' is more like the 95%. Maybe even 99%. Cases that don't even rise to the level of a Perry Mason or Flea Bailey.

Yeah, I've been to the cattle calls back in my barfighting days in the '80s. Cops (sometimes) get called to a barfight ("Aw, you again?, well, you know the drill). We both, or sometimes several, all get booked for "Battery". Somewhere in the booking precedure (memory's a bit hazy), I sign something about "no income" and needing a PD. (NOBODY ever asked: "If you have no income, how were you drinking in that bar?") (Let's just say, it didn't seem necessary to trouble anyone with the details of all the things I could do for cash - and before anyone's mind goes THERE, I will point out that I was a damned good auto mechanic AND electrician AND general handyman back in the day.)

Next morning, you get "First Appearance" in Florida. If you've signed up for PD, they're (usually) there. Everyone files into the courtroom and get called one by one. Walk up to the "defense" table. You get like 30 seconds to talk to the PD:

PD: "They're calling it "battery". Can you do 3 days for "Disorderly Conduct?""
ME: "Yeah, whatever." PD Glances at prosecutor, who nods back.

30 seconds "consultation" are up. Judge speaks up:

"Smithee, you've been charge with battery. How do you plead?"
PD Speaks up: Your honor, we have an agreement for "Disorderly Conduct".
JUDGE Glances at the Prosecutor. "That's correct your honor"
JUDGE Speaks to me: "Smithee, do you blah, blah, blah?"
ME(trying to look remorseful, hangover and all): "Yes, your honor". Even a doofus like me knows how to act in court. You don't say "Yeah, whatever" to a Judge.
JUDGE: Plea Accepted. 3 Days. {gavel bang}

Whole thing is over in 2 minutes or so; I get cable TV, air conditioning, beans and rice for breakfast and bologna sandwiches for lunch and dinner for the next two days.

Show up 3 days later at a used car lot that had been paying me under the table as a mechanic:

OWNER: "So, they got you again?"
ME: "Uh, yeah"
OWNER: "Will, try to keep it to a minimum. I need you here"

THAT meant a lot to me. By then I was 20-something, and it was the first time in my life anyone ever said they "needed" me.

That you for sharing; yours is a compelling firsthand example. My only similar experiences involved traffic court and no jail time; and yet, I eventually worked for a lawyer who used to get off on egregious speeding violations all the time. Acting as his own defense counsel, during the “discovery” phase, he would demand to see the evidence presented against him. Since this was usually just the word of a LEO, the municipality would typically decide that he wasn’t worth the effort.

The figurative “assembly line” approach you describe may be pragmatic for low-level offenses and repeat appearances; but for more serious charges and those unjustly accused, serious miscarriages of justice can result. It comes down to money and influence buying “justice” and that’s not right.
Ironically, I am due on jury duty here in Ayr Sheriff Court, starting Monday.

scotsman, on 15 August 2018 - 09:00 PM, said:

Ironically, I am due on jury duty here in Ayr Sheriff Court, starting Monday.

In Massachusetts, jury duty is "one day or one trial"; this is so you don't come for 3-4 days and just sit around, waiting for something to happen. What's the arrangement for you?

MADGestic, on 16 August 2018 - 07:31 PM, said:

scotsman, on 15 August 2018 - 09:00 PM, said:

Ironically, I am due on jury duty here in Ayr Sheriff Court, starting Monday.
In Massachusetts, jury duty is "one day or one trial"; this is so you don't come for 3-4 days and just sit around, waiting for something to happen. What's the arrangement for you?

Hi, don't know. Could be in court for an hour, in for six months. I have noted the court I am in (local court which rarely deals with murder or rape, usually theft and assaults) has only five cases all week. If not needed for case 1, then probably free to go, like the Massachusetts courts, but could be called back later that day or that week for any of the other four. I reckon no more than a week. And an equal chance, I will be out of court by lunchtime. The average sheriff court jury is less than a week. Serious murder and rape cases usually get sent up to the High Court in Glasgow. Sheriff courts here are local and deal with minor crime.
I plead because if I didn't the FEDS told me they would PAY someone to LIE about me on the stand! People have NO idea the about the abuse of POWER and corruption there is in today's "justice system!" The FEDS are the worse abusers f that power!
I am sickened by how our injustice system is set up. You think it's bad when you have to use a Public Defender, just imagine not qualifying for one because you work for a living, then having to convince your loved one to lie and please guilty because the lawyer you hired said either do that or there is no telling how much I'm going to charge you and there's a 50/50 chance your loved one can go to jail for something he didn't do.

Then yes, the actual going to court part is just like a cattle call and unless you do this all the time, it is so confusing & nobody seems to care about the truth or justice.

This is why whenever someone says but hey, look, he pled guilty before more than once and I would never plead guilty to something I didn't do. Well good for you for having the ability to write a blank check and taking a chance of possibly going to jail.

No, not all citizens are treated the same. Connections and money do matter. When you have neither, you are screwed and people who lie know how to use the system.

And then I saw it from the other side when my cousin's killer got off mostly with time served & just a little time behind bars because the judge particularly liked his Public Defender. I was there the whole trial & the judge lied like a dog to help out his favorite PD and his killer client.
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