Deal or No Deal?
Recent headlines have been filled by criminal charges against NFL star running back Adrian Peterson. From the get go Peterson maintained his innocence. In a statement issued September 15 he said, “I never intended to harm my son. I will say the same thing once I have my day in court”. On November 3, 2014 his day in court came and when asked how do you plead to the charges, he responded, “no contest” Wasn’t he just insisting he was innocent? Maybe he was innocent; maybe he wasn’t. Regardless, the system doesn’t care.
The American Injustice System?
Mr. Peterson was formally indicted and charged for the offense of Injury to a Child under Tex. Pen. Code 22.04 (a)(3). This offense is a state jail felony, with a punishment range up to two years in prison and/or up to a $10,000 fine. State jail felony convictions are day for day (i.e. 365 days means 365 days). He plead “no contest” (i.e. guilty) to reckless assault, a Class A misdemeanor and received a two year deferred adjudication conditioned upon a $4000 fine, plus court costs, and eighty hours of community service. Upon successful completion of the deferred adjudication he will be eligible for a non-disclosure. Make no mistake about it this was a good deal. He avoids jail time; he avoids a felony; he avoids a final conviction; and he can have his record blocked in the future. In just a few months he went from “having his day in court” with the possibility of a felony conviction and up to two years in state jail, to a “no contest” misdemeanor conviction and zero days in an orange jumpsuit.
Welcome to the American Justice System. But he was guilty, you say. Maybe he was, but let’s assume he wasn’t. In fact, let’s assume it was you who was arrested for a crime you did not commit. Let’s assume you faced the very situation Mr. Peterson did, deal or no deal? What if you were wrongfully charged with murder with the possibility of life in prison, but were offered a lesser charge of ten years in prison? Would you take the ten or would you seek your day in court? William Kelly found himself in that very situation and took the ten. Two years later DNA revealed the State had the wrong guy and Mr. Kelly was exonerated. He isn’t alone.
A statistic released by the Innocence Project (an organization dedicated to exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted) revealed of the three hundred people the project has proven were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, at least 10%, plead guilty to those crimes. Think about that. Thirty people stood up in court, walked to the bench, looked the judge in the eye, and said they were guilty of a crime they DID NOT COMMIT. Criminologists recently estimated of the 2.2 million Americans in prison, over 2 million are there because of plea bargains. Of those 2 million, somewhere between 2 – 8 % plead guilty to crimes they DID NOT COMMIT. That means 40,000 – 160,000 people are sitting in jail for something they did not do.
But why would an innocent person plead guilty? United States District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff, in his recent article for the New York Review of Books, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty” reasoned innocent people often plead guilty to avoid the potential, lurking harsh sentence at trial. He notes the scenario can be seen played out at your local courthouse time and time again. The accused is charged with a crime. The prosecutor offers a lesser punishment or even a lesser charge in exchange for a guilty plea. To assist in making the accused’s decision, the prosecutor threatens with enhancements, additional charges, or “take it or leave it” offers. The court is anxious to move their docket. The prosecutor is anxious to get a conviction. The accused has been living the nightmare for over a year and is tired. The pressure has taken its toll. The deal is accepted. The accused pleads guilty. But, is he? Rakoff expresses his concern that prosecutors have too much power, acting with “virtual impunity”, in determining the fate of an accused.
How did the American Justice System get to this point? Judge Rakoff explains, as crime rates rose over the years, plea bargaining offered a way out. Cases could be resolved without burdening the system with additional trials. The accused could avoid jail or less jail time. The government could get a conviction without using further money, resources, and time. As crime rates continued to rise (especially drug and violent crimes) and with the passing of “tough on crime” legislation, plea bargains began occurring at extremely high rates. It is estimated approximately 95% of criminal cases, not dismissed, result in a deal. Judge Rakoff states, the flaw is in deals determined largely by the prosecutor and government policy, with little judicial input. Subtle, small things such as the mood of a government employee that day can have its effect. I would add defense attorneys unwilling to set cases for trial add to the high number of plea bargains. The judge expresses the system in the United States has evolved into a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson and co. contemplated, what the movies and television portray, or what the average American believes. Justice Rakoff isn’t alone in his opinion. The Human Rights Watch, published a 132-page report titled An Offer You Can’t Refuse, highlighting similar problems in today’s justice system.
Of course, the American Justice System is not entirely flawed. It is still the best justice system in the world. Watch any high-profile, foreign case for confirmation. Further, plea bargains are necessary to keep the system moving. When done properly, a plea bargain can result in a win for both the accused and the government. However, if innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit; if innocent people are sitting in jail for crimes they did not commit, then our system needs help. There was a time in America where the jury-trial served not only as a truth-seeking mechanism but also as means of achieving fairness. Have we lost sight of that original goal?
So it begs the question, if you were falsely accused of a crime, what would you do? Deal or No Deal.