Innocent until proven guilty. It’s the foundation of our criminal justice system. It’s the guiding principle for every criminal case – in theory.
In practice, however, it’s not always straightforward. Evidence can be twisted to make the most innocent person look guilty. Juries don’t always put their prejudices aside to render impartial verdicts. And the realities of the justice system leave many defendants with an impossible decision: go to trial and risk everything, or plead guilty, serve a more reasonable sentence, and get on with life.
The flesh-and-blood factors that inform these difficult decisions
Why, you might think, would anyone plead guilty (or no-contest) to a crime they didn’t commit? Why wouldn’t they let the facts and evidence speak for them? Why wouldn’t they speak for themselves?
The fact is, it’s not just the facts and evidence in a case that determine the outcome. It’s the whole web of factors beyond the courtroom and the charging documents. It’s the flesh-and-blood complexities of life, and it’s the fundamentally flawed nature of the justice system.
Many defendants in criminal cases are from the lowest strata of society. They have wives, sons, daughters, infants. Their entire family is relying on them. They don’t want to miss out on decades of their children’s lives. Put simply, they can’t afford to take the risk of trial – a risk that, to some degree, is unavoidable, even with the most experienced and dedicated of defense attorneys.
In that light, it’s not surprising that an estimated 95 percent of all defendants take guilty pleas. That number is likely higher in high-stakes cases. Studies have shown that pretrial detention results in a greater likelihood of a guilty plea. And when the death penalty is on the table, defendants are 20 percent more likely to take a plea.
Technically speaking, it might be a no-contest or Alford plea – denying guilt, professing innocence or acknowledging the strength of the state’s evidence. But in the eyes of the public, and for purposes of punishment, it’s a guilty plea. And so an innocent person ends up behind bars, another victim of an imperfect justice system.
A tale of two brothers
One story vividly illustrates the dilemma defendants face. Two young Latino brothers in a poor Chicago neighborhood got caught up with the wrong crowd, and both ended up behind bars for a murder they didn’t commit. Decades later, a lawyer finally got their case reopened based on favorable new evidence. A judge granted them a new trial. But, as with all trials, there were no guarantees. One brother opted to take a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of time served – which meant immediate freedom – rather than risk another conviction and another crushing prison sentence. The other went to trial and was exonerated.
By all accounts, both brothers are innocent. Yet one has a murder conviction on his record while the other does not.
Just how many innocent people end up behind bars?
It’s impossible to know for sure how many innocent people are serving lengthy prison sentences across the country. But we do know how many prisoners have been exonerated through DNA evidence alone. And that number is staggering.
The Innocence Project, which focuses on exonerating prisoners convicted of murder and rape, has freed more than 350 people in the last 25 years – including 20 on death row. These prisoners spent an average of 14 years behind bars. That’s nearly a decade and a half, gone.
Many of these prisoners, like the Chicago brothers, took the risk of trial and ended up convicted. Some pled guilty or no-contest to avoid the possibility of a death sentence. Others even gave false confessions under intense interrogation. All were innocent, as proven by incontrovertible DNA evidence.
Innocent until proven guilty, it turns out, really isn’t the foundation of our justice system. More accurate would be innocent until sufficiently threatened or innocent until the risk of trial outweighs the certainty of a plea. It’s an unfortunate reality, and a burden we must all work toward alleviating.