Why Would You Plead Guilty to a Crime You Didn’t Commit?

Sadly, many people do.

Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the National Register of Exonerations writes:

In the past year, 45 defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to low-level drug crimes in Harris County, Tex. They were cleared months or years after conviction by lab tests that found no illegal drugs in the materials seized from them.

Why then did they plead guilty? As best we can tell, most were held in jail because they couldn’t make bail. When they were brought to court for the first time, they were given a take-it-or-leave-it, for-today-only offer: Plead guilty and get probation or weeks to months in jail. If they refused, they’d wait in jail for months, if not a year or more, before they got to trial, and risk additional years in prison if they were convicted. That’s a high price to pay for a chance to prove one’s innocence.

Sometimes the State has a weak case. Sometimes the State has a complainant stretching the truth. Sometimes the police just get the wrong guy. Any of these facts can lead the prosecutor to offer a deal you can’t refuse. If you are stuck in jail, unable to bond out, you just might take that deal. If you are afraid of the risks of trial, a risk that a jury simply won’t believe you over a police officer, you just might take that deal.

By way of example, my client was charged with aggravated robbery after he drunkenly stole a beer from a local convenience store. He was belligerent and condescending to the store clerk. He was upset as he had just been the victim of a theft and was unable to reach the police. Drunk and downtrodden, he wandered into a store to use the phone. When he was denied use of the phone, he angrily took a beer from the cooler and proceeded out the door. The problem: he had a knife on his hip; a knife he carries for work. He ended up charged with an aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, a knife.

Knowing he stole a beer, knowing he was drunk and disorderly, my client was prepared to plead guilty to what he did. He was not, however, willing to plead to an aggravated robbery that carried a punishment of 5 years to life in prison. Facing a mandatory minimum of 5 years, the prosecutor made that deal he couldn’t refuse: 1 year in prison on a reduced theft from person charge.

My client spent hours and then days agonizing over whether or not to accept that deal. He contemplated whether or not a jury would be “tough on crime” and convict despite the evidence. He was right to worry. Jurors sometimes blindly follow law enforcement and prosecutors.

Ultimately, my client rejected the offer and continued his case for trial. We worked hard to establish a time line. We worked hard to prepare a defense that recognized the real conduct: a drunk and disorderly person who stole a beer. Leading up to trial, we were able to show the prosecutor the true facts and receive a misdemeanor plea deal appropriate for the conduct.

Had my client been unable to bond out of jail, he just may have taken the original 5 year minimum offer. Had he not had an attorney working with him, one who believed in his story from the beginning, he just may have taken the 1 year in prison on a reduced charge that was still a felony. As it was, it took 10 months to resolve his case – had he been in custody, a plea to 1 year in prison could have resulted in him being out before we ever got our trial.

Faced with the prospect of lengthy prison time, many people end up taking the deal rather than fighting. Dare i say some lawyers even push their clients into those deals. It’s always a matter of risk and usually a matter of bond. Those stuck in jail are far more likely to take a deal that gets them home quicker than their case can make it to trial.

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