In theory, a guilty plea reflects a defendant’s understanding that he is in fact guilty as charged and that the government could prove it beyond reasonable doubt. In fact, it is often the result of a coerced bargain, where the defendant has a choice between “taking a plea” to a lesser charge and accepting a lesser punishment or “rolling the dice” and facing decades in prison if convicted.
For example, most of the defendants in the Tulia,Texas fake cocaine cases had pled guilty. So had a several of the defendants later exonerated by DNA testing.
In general, an innocent defendant is required to lie about this in his pre-plea colloquy with the judge: just one more way in which our system of justice earns the contempt of the people subject to it. (There’s actually something called an “Alford plea” in which a defendant pleads guilty while insisting on his innocence, but the prosecutor need not accept such a plea.)
I hadn’t known this, but apparently some U.S. Attorneys have been demanding that defendants who plead guilty waive their rights to DNA testing, lest improving technology might allow them to demonstrate their innocence at some future date.
The Washington Post reports that Attorney Genearl Eric Holder plans to ban such demands. Good for him!
h/t Jonathan Alter The comment thread to Alter’s post has lots of discussion about “acceptance of responsibility,” which stands out, even in the really loopy world of criminal-law doctrine, for its awesome wrongheadedness.
It certainly makes sense to care whether a defendant at sentencing admits that what he did was wrong. For example, if someone convicted of assault insists that the victim deserved it, or a thief that he needed the money more than the victim did and thereforew was morally entitled to take it, that would be good evidence of recidivism risk.
But there’s no comparable reason to care about whether the defendant admits that he did what he’s been convicted of. He ought to be able to say, “Yes, the conduct described in the indictment (or proved at trial) was horrible conduct, and no one should ever do such a thing,” while also saying, “But/and, in fact, I didn’t.”