Earlier this week, we began a discussion about a serious problem within the criminal justice system: potentially unjust holes in the plea bargain process. Most Wisconsin residents would never dream of pleading guilty to a crime they didn't commit, unless they felt they had little choice.
Many wrongfully accused defendants feel compelled to take plea bargains, often because they are told they will be found guilty and will face a much stricter sentence if their case goes to trial. Therefore, a totally innocent person may plead guilty to rape, assault, or some other serious crime as a means of minimizing potential consequences.
Last month, a California man was exonerated after spending more than five years in prison for rape. At the time of the alleged incident, the young man was only 17 years old and had a promising future as a professional football player.
Upon examination, it is clear that the case against him was flimsy. In fact, his sentence was finally reversed after his accuser took back her earlier testimony against him. So why did he plead "no contest" instead of fighting the charges in the first place?
The recently cleared defendant said he had been too afraid to plead not guilty. He had been told that if he didn't take the deal, he could potentially be incarcerated for life.
Many of us might also choose the lesser of two evils, even if we are completely innocent. When faced with that kind of serious threat, the risk of fighting the charges suddenly seems too high.
Some criminal justice reform advocates want to either abolish the plea bargain system or find a way to prevent perversions of justice like the one mentioned above. But in either case, it is crucially important for all defendants to be represented by a qualified criminal defense attorney. If you are truly innocent, you should never have to settle for less than complete exoneration.
Source: SCPR.org, "Researchers say plea bargains actually send innocent defendants to jail," Rina Palta, June 13, 2012