Lucien E. Dervan and Vanessa Edkins report here that over half of the participants in a research study were willing to falsely admit guilt in exchange for perceived benefits. For example, a college student was accused of cheating and presented with benefits in exchange for saving her university the trouble of pursuing disciplinary action against her. She decided to take the deal. Unknown to the student was the fact that she was part of a study to replicate the hard choices suspects face in criminal justice. The study authors, of course, knew that she was innocent of the charge.
Brian Banks pleaded nolo contendere or no contest. As Mark Godsey explained here, this plea enables the defendant to neither admit nor dispute the charges against him. We all now know that Banks was innocent, but, on the advice of counsel, decided not to risk a conviction and a draconian sentence.
The authors of this study cite the U.S. Supreme Court in opinions that acknowledge the potential risk of innocent persons agreeing to plea bargains and the importance of using plea bargaining only in cases in which evidence of guilt is very strong.
In Banks’s case, and in countless others, the testimony of the victim is considered strong evidence in a he-said, she-said crime. Eyewitness identification in stranger-to-stranger cases has often been considered virtually irrefutable evidence. But we’ve learned that a victim can lie, and that eyewitness identifications have been historically wrong 25 percent of the time in thousands of cases in which rape kit DNA has been compared with the DNA of the prime suspect, identified by the victim. These lessons cast doubt on the evidence that has often prompted a suspect to take a plea deal.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland acknowledged plea bargaining as a method of adjudicating justice, but it also recognized the potential need to reexamine this practice “if the encouragement of guilty pleas by offers of leniency substantially increased the likelihood that defendants, advised by competent counsel, would falsely condemn themselves.”
Most in the criminal justice system acknowledge that plea bargaining serves a purpose and often results in a fair resolution, saving the time and expense of going to trial presumably in cases in which evidence of guilty is strong or overwhelming. The system would collapse if all cases went to trial. But the case of Brian Banks, the lessons of DNA, and the results of research such as that noted here, suggest that new caution must be given to plea bargaining. We can never permit our need for expediency to trump the pursuit of true justice.
- http://missoulian.com/news/local/article_05e7fca6-9d23-11df-a55a-001cc4c03286.html - Public Defender System Broke In Montana
- http://publicdefender.mt.gov/forms/pdf/ACLUmontanaopdreport.pdf - ACLU Report On Montana Public Defenders
- http://www.goskagit.com/news/article_f3baba62-c447-11e0-a1cd-001cc4c03286.html - ACLU Joins In Lawsuit Concerning Public Defenders
Quote from a Montana Public Defender:
Several employees talked about their “crushing caseloads.” Several said they have or had so many clients, they feel they are constantly on the verge of committing legal malpractice. Many spoke of having no mentoring, no help when they need it, which is a “huge issue,” one lawyer said, because so much of the legal staff are fairly recent law school grads. (Some not even attorneys.)
Whether or not a person qualified for a defender rested with the presiding judge in the case.
The county-run system, used in many other states, had some successes, but many problems, said Scott Crichton, executive director of the ACLU. Larger counties with bigger budgets often had better public defender offices than smaller counties. Many public defenders had had enormous caseloads and did not have the same access to experts as prosecutors.
All of that meant poor defendants were not getting a fair shake in court, Crichton said.
Since Jewell wrote his messages, criticism aimed at the agency has mounted. Last year, a group of auditors called in from American University of Washington, D.C., released their conclusions:
Here’s what they found: Management is often non-functional, there isn’t enough money or support staff, morale is low and, perhaps not surprisingly, turnover is “relatively high.”
All of this the year that “Allen Whetstone – The Incarcerated Fireman” had to have a public defender, who threatened that he would not get a fair trial, she did not want to go to trial, she did not tell anyone that the registry was not by law mandated, she did not follow through on any of the information that she was given when was asked about going to jury trial. Not all witnesses were called and those that were called they did not get the full story. Since then received written statements have come in on behalf of Allen Whetstone and how things really went down at MDC. She did not protest that Matt Johnson County Attorney was using misconduct in this case. When the four of them were meeting with her, it was mentioned when that misconduct was brought up how this whole case was handled, that it was nothing but mafia style running the system. She did not disagree. Remember, 4 were sitting in that room and heard that conversation.