Sunday, December 20, 2009

Innocent people pleading guilty

It's one of the criminal justice system's dirty little secrets -- innocent people plead guilty because the risk if you lose at trial is too high. The Wall Street Journal covers this phenomenon here:

A surprise twist in the criminal case against Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Samueli again raises questions about plea bargains, one of the most important and controversial aspects of the justice system.

In a Santa Ana, Calif., court last week, federal Judge Cormac Carney dismissed the criminal complaint charging Mr. Samueli with lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission in its investigation of whether Broadcom misstated its earnings by improperly accounting for executive stock options. Judge Carney's dismissal came even though Mr. Samueli had stood before him in 2008 and pleaded guilty to that very crime.

Mr. Samueli did what lawyers and legal scholars fear a disturbing number of other people have done: pleaded guilty to a crime they didn't commit or at least believed they didn't commit. These defendants often end up choosing that route because they feel trapped in a corner, or fear getting stuck with a long prison sentence if they go to trial and lose.

The evolution of the criminal-justice system in recent decades has put many defendants "under all but impossible pressure to plead guilty, even if they're not," said Yale law Prof. John Langbein, a critic of the plea-bargain system.

A daughter of a defendant who recently pled guilty in this district says that her dad was innocent but couldn't risk a life sentence when there was a 2-year offer on the table:

But she wants to be pragmatic. Should her father risk spending the rest of his life in prison in an attempt to clear his name? She doesn't think so. Even before a plea bargain was offered, she said her father should consider one if it were offered. "It is really (awful), admitting to something you didn't do," she said. "He doesn't deserve any of this."

David Gerger out of Houston summed up best:

“When the government can increase your sentence tenfold for going to trial, then very few innocent people will have the courage to take that risk,” Gerger said. “They will just plead guilty, and that's wrong.”

There's a lot we can do to fix this, and much of it already has been discussed (even by yours truly -- I testified about this problem before the Sentencing Commission a few months back). For starters, juries -- not probation officers -- should recommend sentences to the Court.

And perhaps our court system should be more open to the public, like the state system is. One move in the right direction -- the 9th Circuit has started a pilot program where non-jury civil trials can be televised.

Video cameras, long banned from most federal courtrooms, could be used in civil trials throughout the West under a new initiative in the federal judiciary’s Ninth Circuit. One of the first cases to be televised could be next month’s hearing over a challenge to California’s same-sex marriage ban.

The move was announced Thursday by Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Judge Kozinski called the move an “experiment” that “is designed to help us find the right balance between the public’s right to access to the courts and the parties’ right to a fair and dignified proceeding.”

But as Judge Kozinski said in an interview, “a lot has happened since then.” He cited advances in technology, the rise of Internet video transmission and greater experience of successful use of video in state courts and at the federal appeals level. “We thought it was time to take another look,” he said.

Judge Kozinski emphasized that the new initiative was still an experiment, and that it would be dropped “if it in any way impairs the fair administration of justice.” But he also noted that he did not expect to see problems.

“It’s a little bit of an uphill battle” to get courts to adopt technology, he said, adding: “We all have to be much more tech savvy than we really ever were, or particularly wanted to be. It’s just the nature of life in the 21st century.”

So, we have a lot to discuss in the comments -- are innocent defendants pleading guilty? Should we have cameras in the courtroom?

UPDATE -- check out this article about the attorney who was recently acquitted. Apparently the judge isn't too happy with the sweetheart deals given to the snitches:

A federal judge in Columbus, Ga., has slammed federal prosecutors for making "sweetheart plea deals" with drug dealers to further their "relentless pursuit" of a criminal defense attorney whose trial ended last month when a jury acquitted him of drug conspiracy, attempted bribery and money laundering charges.
U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land issued his harsh criticism of the U.S. Attorneys' Offices for the Middle and Southern Districts of Georgia in an unusual 19-page order explaining why he more than doubled the recommended prison sentence of a federal witness who testified against Columbus lawyer J. Mark Shelnutt.
Land suggested that the judgment of the U.S. Attorney's Middle District office in Macon, Ga., which oversees federal prosecutions in Columbus, "may have become clouded by its zeal to bring down a prominent defense attorney."
"The Court became concerned that the focus of the U.S. attorney's office was on getting a high-profile lawyer and negotiating sweetheart plea deals with the actual drug dealers to accomplish that," Land wrote.


Anonymous said...

Sure. Fix it the same way you fix guilty people who plead innocent.

Anonymous said...

Judge Zloch set aside two guilty pleas this year when those defendants appeared for sentencing. The pleading defendants had already testified as government witnesses and admitted their guilt. Yet the judge found, after the trial had ended with a mistrial, that no crime had been committed. The fact that innocents plead is not surprising; that judges tolerate it by penalizing defendants who go to trial is both surprising and disappointing.

Anonymous said...

shumie time!

Fake Fred Moreno said...

MEEEESTER MARKUS!!!! Don't be messing around with our plea agreements here. This is a dangerous path you are treading down. Just because you win a case or two doesn't mean everyone should go to trial. We have things running here pretty smoothly Meeeeeester Markus and I don't want you upsetting my apple cart. Capesh?

The Straw Buyer said...

Why would you go to trial in Dade with plea deals like these? 15 randomly selected defendants accused of over $4.5 million dollars in fraud and nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Why waste the time and money on trial?

Anonymous said...

I quite like this short, sophisticated discussion about what's wrong with plea bargaining:

Anonymous said...

How can an innocent person plead guilty? Before a judge takes a plea, the person must swear under oath that he's guilty.

Anonymous said...

Has DOM been under a rock recently not to realize that it's defense attorneys like him and AUSAs who provide for a sentence recommendation in written plea agreements, not POs? But, let's say for those few souls opting for trials, how are juries to get pertinent background information about the guilty party? Certainly not from AUSAs. From defense counsel? Not! From whom do Courts to get 3553(a) factor information? The tide is in your favor, DOM. Be patient.

Anonymous said...

If you are innocent but plea (be it fear of imprisonment or lack of defense funds) then you have committed perjury.
You've lied under oath, and lied for the purpose of obtaining personal benefit (lesser sentence or lesser degree etc.)
If you plea pre-trial, after wasting the court and prosecutors time and money on motions and oral argument to prove that you are innocent - then turn around months/years later to swear under oath "yep, I did it" ?! (I'm not a atty, but there's got to be a crime in that?)
If the crime you are accused of is one that has/could harm(ed)others then your plea frees the actual criminal, now you have obstructed justice.
If you know the responsible party that overted the law, and that "true" criminal repeats the crime; have you not also aided and abetted?

Sebastian Kishinevsky said...

I have first hand experience in this. I was accused and charged for a white collar crime that I did not commit-I swear this on my children. I was willing to take 100 lie detector test but little did I know that they are not acceptable in federal court. My laywer advised to take a plea even though he knew I was innocent aswell, since I couldn't afford a million dollar lawyer I don't really know if my lawyer was looking for my best interest or if he just wanted to take the easy way out. I can only speak for my prosecutor but it was very easy to see that he cares nothing for someone's life and only cares about the amount of convictions he can get (innocent or guilty doesn't matter to him). Through all this I've learned the Federal system isn't set up to seperate the innocent from the guilty its set up to save time and money. I had to do 6 months for a crime I didn't do, cant go back into banking where I've been the last 12 yrs. They've tried to ruin my life but I won't let them. If this has happened to me I'm sure its happened to thousands of more americans as well.

Anonymous said...

Oh I can sympathize completely. I've been accused; lost a 20 year career, marriage, home, health and all savings. Three years and counting; its not over until the prosecution says it is. Sure, I can plea for crimes I never committed, but the plea would be a lie hence the plea would be a crime. A crime the prosecution would gladly overlook.....

Anonymous said...

People plead guilty when innocent because they are a deer in headlights when it comes to trying to make a decision and no one they trust really to help them think to decide or talk to. And to me, with the experience my husband went through, my definition of it, "bullying".

If he had gotten to talk to me about what was going on in the trial before making the decision, I would have told him "no way" plead guilty and he would not have. The felony charge was BS and something that is not even illegal in most states and other civilized countries.