When Innocent Defendants Plead Guilty

Basic to the American criminal justice system is the presumption that criminal defendants are innocent. Also fundamental is that a defendant must be acquitted unless guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. These rules aim to protect innocent defendants from conviction even at the price of occasionally letting a guilty defendant go free.

Since lawmakers’ efforts in the 1980s to get tough on violent crime, however, this protection of innocence has been threatened by many changes in the justice system. These changes have resulted in an overwhelmed criminal justice system, which in turn taxed government budgets, overworked public defenders and criminal courts, and overcrowded prisons. A significant part these so-called reforms was the institution of mandatory minimum sentences, which state and federal lawmakers enacted as a response to rising crime in the 1970s and 80s.

As a result of these mandatory minimum sentences, defendants often find themselves faced with a lengthy mandatory sentence if found guilty at trial despite their innocence. So when the prosecutor is offering a much shorter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, many innocent defendants find themselves conflicted: accept the prosecutor’s deal and plead guilty despite factual innocence, or maintain innocence and risk a long mandatory sentence if found guilty at trial?

The law recognizes this dilemma in the form of the so-called “Alford plea.” An Alford plea allows a defendant to plead guilty (that is, to accept the prosecutor’s deal) while still maintaining his or her innocence, thereby avoiding the risk of a long mandatory sentence. “When the penalties are so high, no one wants to take the risk of going to trial because if you lose, you’re going to go away for a long, long time,” said Jed Rakoff, a federal judge in New York, who has researched and written extensively on this subject. Last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were in cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than in any previous year.

This same dynamic can operate in cases without mandatory minimum sentences because sentencing ranges are so long. For example, at the Marshall Defense Firm we defend many persons accused of child sex abuse. Because there is often very little evidence in these cases other the child’s statements and the defendant’s denial—and because children usually elicit sympathy from jurors—innocence is no guarantee of acquittal at trial.

Compounding the problem is that in child sex abuse cases, whether or not any abuse occurred, the child will often say it happened many times. This permits prosecutors to charge many counts, and that can easily run up the likely sentence on conviction to 20 years or more. And in some child sex abuse cases Washington law does provide mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years. RCW 9.94A.507(3)(c)(ii) Sentencing of sex offenders.

I have represented several clients who have eliminated the risk of a very long sentence by pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence. It always pains me when an innocent person pleads guilty, but I understand the decision.