As anyone wrapped up in Serial can attest, criminal trials involving potentially innocent defendants make for great theatre. Even in audio-only format, the mystery is compelling, though—or perhaps precisely because—the outcome may be tragic.
But, as federal judge Jed Rakoff explains in the November 20 issue of The New York Review of Books, this kind of mystery doesn’t always play out in court. Forget potentially innocent defendants—actually innocent ones sometimes plead guilty. (“Why Innocent People Plead Guilty.”)
We’ve previously discussed false confessions in this space. Though at first befuddling, the concept of someone wrongly admitting guilt soon after arrest begins to make sense. The tremendous psychological ploys known to law enforcement can get all kinds of information out of suspects. And sometimes that information isn’t reliable.
But that’s in the context of the interrogation room. Outside of that intimidating setting, one might think that an innocent defendant would know not to admit culpability. The opportunity to confer with a lawyer, and to reflect on the matter for days or weeks would seem to inevitably prevent a “false positive.”
As Judge Rakoff details, though, sentencing laws give prosecutors all the power. Particularly in federal court, government attorneys can shape sentences with their charging decisions, have vastly more information than the defense in the early stages of a case, and often have no one to answer to. This positions them quite nicely, where they can offer take-it-or-leave-it deals with quick return dates. Leave it, and if you can later get any kind of deal at all, it’ll probably be much worse. Or you can go to trial.
Indeed, in 2012, the average sentence for federal narcotics defendants who entered into any kind of plea bargain was five years and four months, while the average sentence for defendants who went to trial was sixteen years.
Given those numbers, it’s not hard to see why a defendant might decide to play it safe.
Many factors contribute to the false-guilty-plea problem. Rakoff explains them quite well, provides numbers, and even offers a solution (though admittedly not a cure-all). His perspective—formed by combined experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge—is certainly worth the read.