In order to ease the burden of the criminal justice system, plea bargains are offered to defendants who are allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, have the more serious charge dismissed, and agree to a reduced prison term.
While on the surface it may sound like a fair system, and, historically, plea bargains worked well. But, as time went on, legislation went into effect with mandatory sentencing guidelines outlining the minimum to maximum and increasing penalties, especially for drug related crimes.
One thing that did become quickly apparent, however, was that these guidelines, along with mandatory minimums, were causing the virtual extinction of jury trials in federal criminal cases. Thus, whereas in 1980, 19 percent of all federal defendants went to trial, by 2000 the number had decreased to less than 6 percent and by 2010 to less than 3 percent, where it has remained ever since. Why Innocent People Plead Guilty
The guidelines seemingly leveled the playing field in regards to how judges handed down sentences, some being too lenient and some too harsh, however, it armed prosecutors with more power, as well as the ability to shape the charges in the plea bargaining procedure.
Defense attorneys are in a precarious spot. While defending the rights of their clients, they don’t have much recourse in the plea bargain process and limited knowledge of the evidence if the prosecutor doesn’t share.
The defendant enters into the process already charged with a crime, but not proven guilty or innocent and relying on evidence produced only by the prosecutor. This is the point where the imbalance of power is dangerous.
Why would an innocent person accept a guilty plea bargain?
Reasons are as varied as those charged with crimes, but typically the individual comes into the system with a troubled past and little in the way of resources. When faced with the possibility of prison time, or the death penalty, and cost of representing attorneys, they often feel it’s better to just take the plea and reduce the time and charges.
Although research into false guilty pleas is far less developed, it may be hypothesized that similar pressures, less immediate but more prolonged, may be in effect when a defendant is told, often by his own lawyer, that there is a strong case against him, that his likelihood of acquittal is low, and that he faces a mandatory minimum of five or ten years in prison if convicted and a guidelines range of considerably more—but that, if he acts swiftly, he can get a plea bargain to a lesser offense that will reduce his prison time by many years.
Additionally, if the defendant is facing murder charges and lives in a death penalty state, the prosecution may offer to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for a guilty plea. Defendants can be led to believe there is strong evidence against them and it would be advantageous to accept the plea, even though they are innocent and they know it.
Flawed justice is the result of a bargaining process that denies the right to a day in court to prove and argue evidence before a judge and/or jury. During a plea bargain the prosecutor does not have to reveal evidence before the court, therefore leaving little risk for misconduct, and essentially no consequences if misconduct occurs.
Jonathan Fleming case
During the course of investigating the Jonathan Fleming case it was revealed that key evidence which would prove he was out-of-town when the homicide occurred was not produced during trial and that several eyewitness accounts were not credible, or their statements coerced. This is the type of misconduct that is allowing innocent people to be sent to prison at alarming rates throughout the country, and rarely are there consequences.
Locating and interviewing the eyewitnesses clearly showed their testimony was based on deals made with prosecutors in the case in exchange for their testimony against Fleming in court. Also located was a time stamped receipt showing that Fleming was nowhere near the crime scene, but with his family at Disney World.
Although Fleming always professed his innocence, and did not plead guilty, he spent the next 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The premise of the judicial system that we are “innocent until proven guilty” just doesn’t seem to work within the context of plea bargaining where the “win” is seemingly more important.
Management Resources Ltd of New York is a professional investigative firm licensed in New York and New Jersey, members of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Associated Licensed Detectives of New York, and Founding Members and Regional Directors of Investigating Innocence.
Bob Rahn and Kim Anklin are available for interviews or speaking engagements. Contact ImaginePublicity at 843-808-08509 or email firstname.lastname@example.org