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Why Would Anyone Plead Guilty, If They Are Innocent?

06 August 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

This blog post was written by Alexandria Sadler (Summer Intern 2015), a recent graduate of the University of Utah who will be attending law school this fall in California.

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In the “perfect” criminal justice system, no one would plead guilty to something they didn't do. However, our criminal justice system ISN'T perfect. It is underfunded and overburdened. That is why, in Utah, most people agree to a plea bargain and never go to trial.

And by most, I mean, about 98% of people facing charges take a plea.  

Public defenders having few resources to investigate cases often delay the court proceedings and encourage their defendants to take a plea deal. Prosecutors can pile on charges – charges that may not hold weight in a court of law – and have the ability to intimidate defendants into a plea deal. With this imbalance of power, it is far more likely that a defendant will plead guilty and accept. Going to trial shifts from being a right to a risk - and the cards are stacked against you. Can a defendant risk going to trial if their attorney is unable to investigate the case for them?

Meaningful representation when facing criminal charges is promised by the 6th Amendment and Supreme Court decisions, but today that right is unfulfilled. In 2004, the American Bar Association wrote in a report on Indigent Defense “All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring.”

As the Criminal Justice Reform Intern at the ACLU of Utah, I have read hundreds of letters from inmates about their experiences with court-appointed attorneys. In letter after letter, I read accounts of defendants who only saw their attorney for a few minutes before their first court proceeding and felt pressured by their attorney to take a plea bargain.

In one letter, Christopher G. (name has been changed) wrote that his court-appointed attorney’s first words to him were: “You’re going to have to register as a sex offender.” This brief initial meeting took place two weeks after Christopher was booked into jail.

While he waited in his cell for those weeks, Christopher had looked forward to discussing evidence and interviews, only to find that his court appointed attorney either assumed he was guilty or didn’t have the time to adequately defend him. The attorney encouraged him to take a plea deal. During the two hearings that followed, Christopher’s court-appointed legal counsel asked the judge for delays, explaining each time that he was unprepared. Meanwhile, the prosecutor filed multiple charges, increasing the possibility of life in prison.

After all of the delays and climbing sentences, Christopher agreed to a plea deal.

He wrote, “the fear made me take the plea deal. I feel like I was coerced into it.” Without ever really having the opportunity for a trial, Christopher G. is now serving a sentence of five years to life in prison.

And Christopher G. is not alone in relying on our public defender system. More than eighty percent of Utahns facing criminal charges are represented by public defenders. These defenders, despite their best intentions, are often buried in caseloads and overwhelmingly lack the resources to properly investigate cases or defend their clients. Defendants may wait for weeks in jail before seeing their attorney - and then, have only a few minutes to speak, just before the first court proceeding.

They continue to wait in jail as the attorneys ask for delays in the court. Prosecutors hold all the power to pile on charges and structure sentencing that intimidate defendants into accepting whatever plea deal they are offered.

So, why would anyone ever plea guilty if they are innocent? Because for too many Utah defendants, it feels like the only option.

[1] American Bar Association, Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice (Washington, DC: American Bar Association, Dec. 2004), Executive Summarty IV; adopted by American Bar Association House of Delegates, Aug. 9, 2005, www.abanet.or/leadership/2005/annual/dailyjournal/107.doc.