America's guilty plea problem under scrutiny

The Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network recently launched a public education campaign - GuiltyPleaProblem.org - to shine a spotlight on the problem of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit.

"While it is impossible to know the full extent of the problem, the fact that more than 10 percent of the 349 people who were proven innocent by DNA testing had initially pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit tells us that there is a problem and it is extensive," said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

DeLone said the system "pressures people to make choices that are irrational and against their interest."

"As we arrest and prosecute more people," she said. "It becomes even less possible to ensure that the innocent can resist these pressures to plead guilty"

After rising steadily over the past two decades, today 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea.

As GuiltyPleaProblem.org illustrates, innocent people who are trapped in the system face enormous pressures to plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit. A criminal justice system that routinely forces innocent people to plead guilty is unfair and unjust, and, ultimately, violates the principles intended by the Sixth Amendment.

According to Innocence Project data, 11 percent of the 349 DNA exonerations involved people who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn't commit.

The National Registry of Exonerations shows that 345 people have been exonerated who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn't commit throughout the United States.

These represent the lucky few who pleaded guilty (in most cases to serious felonies) and were able to get their convictions reversed, which is especially difficult when a plea has been entered.

According Marla Mitchell-Cichon, director of the Western Michigan University Cooley Innocence Project, Michigan law poses significant legal hurdles for innocent prisoners who plead guilty.

"Michigan's post-conviction DNA testing law does not allow an innocent prisoner to seek DNA testing to prove his innocence. Pleading guilty should not be a bar to DNA testing if such testing can prove innocence. It is not as simple as he pleaded guilty, he is guilty," Mitchell-Cichon said.

The goal of the guilty plea campaign, she said, "is to educate the public about why innocent persons plead guilty. When listening to these stories you can't help but be moved."

Despite the need for legislative change in Michigan, WMU-Cooley's Innocence Project screens guilty plea cases for strong claims of innocence and seeks to work collaboratively with prosecutor's offices to obtain DNA testing in appropriate cases.

At GuiltyPleaProblem.org, viewers will have the opportunity to watch first-person videos of four exonerees who accepted plea deals and served significant prison sentences despite being innocent.

- Chris Ochoa: Ochoa pleaded guilty to a 1988 murder in order to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 2002 after spending 13 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

- JoAnn Taylor: Taylor pleaded guilty to second degree murder to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She was exonerated in 2009 after spending 19 years in prison for a crime she didn't commit.

- Brian Banks: Banks pleaded guilty to sexual assault to avoid a 41-year prison sentence. He was eventually exonerated in 2012 with the help of the California Innocence Project.

- Rodney Roberts: Roberts pleaded guilty to second degree kidnapping and spent 18 years in detention before being exonerated through DNA evidence.

In addition to these stories, the website features an interview with U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff who discusses some of the reasons for the rise in the percentage of cases that end in guilty pleas and how this undermines the justice system.

TV star and criminal justice advocate Hill Harper is featured in a short public service announcement encouraging people to get involved and find solutions to this pressing problem.

The WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project is part of the Innocence Network, which has been credited with the release of 349 wrongfully accused prisoners through the use of DNA testing.

Since 2001, the Cooley Innocence Project has exonerated three individuals - Kenneth Wyniemko, Nathaniel Hatchett and Donya Davis.

The project is actively working on three guilty plea cases.

Published: Mon, Feb 13, 2017

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