Do the Innocent Feel Compelled to Plead Guilty in a Criminal Case?
Imagine yourself in this nightmare. You stand falsely accused of a felony. Before you landed in jail, you owned your home, you were married, you had kids, and you had a job. After you were arrested, your spouse’s salary couldn’t cover the mortgage, your savings were running out, so it began to look like you wouldn’t have that home much longer. Your spouse’s letters professed love, but the visits became less frequent. Your kids, too young to understand what was going on, just missed you. And you missed them so much it hurt. Your employer said he’d keep your job open, but as months drag on, you knew that he couldn’t keep it open forever.
Now the prosecutor offers you probation with no further jail time in return for a plea of guilty to the felony with which you are charged. There you have it: if you plead guilty, you can leave jail today. If you refuse, you might wait more months for trial.
So, do you sacrifice your integrity and plead guilty to a crime you did not commit? Or do you honestly maintain your innocence while knowing that your family suffers too, and that their suffering would end in large part if only you would plead guilty?
You might ask, “wait, isn’t this what a ‘no contest’ plea is for?”
The answer is: prosecutors rarely accept “no contest” pleas on felonies. You can’t dodge this question.
You might say: “I can’t imagine being in this situation. Innocent men don’t usually get accused of crimes, and they certainly don’t plead guilty to them. Not in America.” If you are saying that, then we need to talk.
We need to talk about two questions:
(1) Do innocent men plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed?
(2) If so, why would they do that?
The answer to the first question is: yes, innocent men sometimes do plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed.
Here’s the proof: In April of 2003, a Tulia, Texas scandal, of 46 falsely accused defendants, 27 pleaded guilty. If you want to know more about the Tulia scandal, look at this article: Texas to Toss Drug Convictions Against 38 People
The answer to the second question is there are several reasons why innocent men plead guilty.
In Tulia, many of the 27 could not help but notice that the other defendants falsely accused by (now convicted of perjury) Deputy Tom Coleman were not just being found guilty at trial, but were also receiving harsh sentences.
Other falsely accused defendants face the pressures mentioned in the nightmare I asked you to imagine.
It is into this high-stress atmosphere that experienced criminal defense lawyers must step. The stakes could not be higher. When the integrity of a criminal defendant is put at risk, the integrity of the American criminal justice system is at risk.