Why Would Innocent Defendants Plead Guilty?
An article from 2009 on the website for the Innocence Project lists the names of 31 individuals that pled guilty to crimes for which they were later exonerated. It can be difficult to imagine why or how an innocent person might plead guilty. However, there are a number of reasons why someone might plead guilty even if he or she is innocent or if a conviction is unlikely.
Plea bargains are a deal between the defendant and the prosecution. In exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea, the prosecutor agrees to recommend a particular sentence to the judge – generally, the recommended sentence is less severe or shorter than what the defendant may have received at trial. Plea bargains are an essential part of the United States justice system. If every case went to trial, the court system, prosecutors, and public defenders would constantly be tied up in lengthy trial proceedings. Plea bargains allow the system to function efficiently by quickly resolving criminal cases, usually before they reach the point of a full-blown trial. In exchange for saving the time, money, and energy of going to trial, the defendant usually receives a more favorable punishment than he would have if he had been convicted after going through with an entire trial in court.
Plea Bargains and Power in the Criminal Justice System
However, some critics of plea bargains worry that they may actually induce innocent persons to plead guilty. There are a number of reasons why an innocent person would plead guilty to a crime he or she did not commit, but mostly it has to do with fear. A person facing criminal charges is also facing the prospect of a criminal punishment. For severe crimes, the punishment could potentially be decades or a lifetime behind bars. Even less severe punishment could be life changing – defendants might fear having to live apart from family, losing a job, or any number of consequences. If a defendant is offered a much more lenient sentence as part of a plea deal, he or she will essentially have to choose whether or not to gamble with his freedom. If a defendant chooses to continue to plead not guilty and go to trial, he or she could face the highest possible sentence for the crime charged. On the other hand, if he or she were to plead guilty, the sentence may be greatly reduced. Defendants who worry that their defense is not strong enough, or who are generally risk-averse, may choose to plead guilty rather than risking the harshest punishment available.
The final sentence is not the only consideration. A number of defendants are held in custody while they await trial – so even if they are eventually acquitted, they may have to spend some time in custody. In addition to the loss of freedom that comes with pre-trial detention, they also have to worry about missing work, which could potentially result in the loss of any job that the might have. There is also the cost of proceeding with a trial. Lawyers can be expensive, and paying an lawyer to represent at a trial may be even more so. Some people may be eligible for public defenders, which may save money, but may also provide a defendant with an lawyer who is overworked and overburdened.
If you have questions about your criminal case in Florida, it’s important to have an experienced criminal law lawyer to rely on. Contact our lawyers at The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.