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.”
8 thoughts on “DNA waivers in federal court”
"It certainly makes sense to care whether a defendant at sentencing admits that what he did was wrong."
What if he did it, but it's not wrong? (Possessing marijuana, for instance.) Is it sufficient if he just admits that what he did was illegal?
P.S. He should not be expected to say, in addition to admitting that what he did was illegal, that the mere fact that it is illegal makes it wrong to do. But he should not object to saying that he intends never to smoke marijuana again, as even if he is lying, he is not lying about a belief he holds, but, rather, is lying about something that he has no obligation to be truthful about because it is none of the government's business.
Plea bargaining is needed in our legal system, but plea bargains rarely result in justice being served.
Bargaining away appeal rights strikes me as being destructive of due process and equal protection rights. It's good to see the AG opposing such bargains.
WMD: Where did you see any indication that the Atty General is opposed to plea agreements containing appeal waivers?
Mark, Adler, not Alter. [Don't bother posting this — just fix.]
Peter G: In the post there is a link that says:
I read this and see opposition to bargaining away appeal rights.
Ok, WMD, I understand — you are and were using the term "appeal" in a very general and non-legal sense, to mean any later challenge to a conviction. I was responding as a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in the legal procedure called "appeals." The term "appeal" in particular refers to a review, initiated shortly after the trial-court proceedings (including the entry of a guilty plea) are over, and the defendant has been sentenced. It involves a review by a higher court of the records of the trial-court proceedings to assess their legality. It does not involve the introduction of any new evidence, favorable or unfavorable. Later DNA testing, leading to the possible overturning of a conviction through exoneration, is not an "appeal." I'm not criticizing you for using the term, just pointing out that in this context "appeal" has a specific meaning, which is not the meaning you intended. Pressure to waive the right to appeal — in the legal sense — as part of a plea agreement is in fact a very common practice, which many defense lawyers and others believe is unfair and bad policy (especially when it leaves involuntary and uninformed guilty pleas or — more often — excessive and otherwise illegal sentences seemingly beyond challenge). Insistence on "appeal waivers" proliferated under the Bush Administration's Department of Justice. But the present leadership of the DoJ, including the current Attorney General, has shown no inclination to back off this policy. Later DNA testing is an important, but only a small, piece of the process of correcting injustices and illegalities after the initial appeal process has run its course.
Should we have different sentencing standards for plea bargains with and without an admission of guilt? Without (an Alford plea in all but name) you're saving the state the expense of a trial but not much else. With, there are potential savings down the road as well. On the other hand, the perverse incentives are pretty obvious.
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