Fearing harsh sentences, far too many defendants are pleading guilty and forfeiting their right to trial.
The House Judiciary Committee introduced five bills this year in a bipartisan effort to reform America’s criminal-justice system. With incarceration rates in the U.S. five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and other democracies, the bills aim to provide sensible reforms such as rewriting mandatory-sentencing statutes. Yet none directly addresses plea bargaining, a practice that induces too many defendants to plead guilty to avoid what has come to be known as the trial penalty.
Consider the case of Orville Lee Wollard. The 60-year-old Floridian is serving a 20-year prison sentence for using his legally owned weapon in his own home to fire a warning shot into the wall next to his daughter’s boyfriend. The warning shot came at the end of a day in 2008 during which the boyfriend allegedly attacked Mr. Wollard, assaulted his daughter, and refused to leave Mr. Wollard’s home. No one was injured.
Believing his actions justifiable self-defense, Mr. Wollard rejected a plea bargain of five years probation, choosing instead to exercise his constitutional right to a trial and present his case to a jury. Unfortunately, the court didn’t permit him to admit extensive evidence regarding the boyfriend’s alleged abuse. After hearing the limited evidence, the jury convicted Mr. Wollard of aggravated assault with a firearm, resulting in a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. In September, Florida Gov. Rick Scott denied Mr. Wollard’s request for clemency and release after serving seven years in prison.
Even in cases without mandatory sentences, it is common for sentences handed down after trial to be far more severe than those offered to induce guilty pleas. This “trial penalty” is weighed by thousands of defendants each day when considering whether to accept a plea offer.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch study found that the average federal drug sentence for defendants who proceeded to trial in 2012 was three times longer—an increase of 10 years—than for defendants who pleaded guilty. In that study, a federal judge in New York described the sentences defendants face if they reject plea offers as “so excessively severe, they take your breath away.”
Not surprisingly, the great majority of convictions come from guilty pleas. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, over 97% of convictions in the federal system arise from guilty pleas; state systems aren’t far behind at about 95%.
There are numerous documented cases of innocent defendants pleading guilty, including well-known examples such as Brian Banks. In 2002, at the age of 17, Mr. Banks was wrongly accused of rape yet chose a plea bargain with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. If he rejected the offer and lost at trial, he faced 40 years to life in prison. He took the deal and falsely confessed. In 2012, after definitive evidence of his innocence came to light, a California court reversed the conviction.
The Supreme Court established the constitutionality of plea bargaining in Brady v. United States (1970). But the court warned that it would have “serious doubts” if the “encouragement of guilty pleas by offers of leniency substantially increased the likelihood that defendants, advised by competent counsel, would falsely condemn themselves.” Sadly, the trial penalty has done just that. ..Source.. by Mr. Dervan who is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law.