Plea Bargains: Replacing Effective Prosecution with Intimidation

I recently watched the HBO Documentary “Gideon’s Army” which featured the professional and personal struggles of three lawyers working for the public defender’s office. This entry focuses on Travis: a man one year into the public defense profession, who viewed his pursuit as noble and necessary for a just society. However, he often found himself taking a case as far as it could go and then eventually having to negotiate for someone else’s liberty. The beginning of the documentary highlights his idealism which has lead him to frame his ‘not guilty’ verdicts and display them around his office, endeavoring to fill the walls. It soon becomes clear that despite his massive caseload, that may take quite some time.

Travis worked a client’s case who was present at an armed robbery but contended that his involvement was strictly limited to his proximity to the crime; it was the other individual (a childhood friend) who actually committed the robbery. The prosecutor on the other hand, insisted that the defendant was intimately involved in the crime. In that pursuit, the prosecutor immediately offered a plea deal in which they would recommend the minimum sentence. Travis investigated the circumstances much further than the prosecutor did, even wanting the fingerprints to be analyzed despite the lack of resources available to the public defense office. To do this, Travis requested the fingerprints actually be entered into evidence. To the lack of Travis’s surprise, the fingerprint results came back without a match on the defendant. In fact, the only match on the fingerprints were of the other individual present.

At this point, the prosecutor lowered the charges from armed robbery which carried a minimum sentence of ten years, to robbery by intimidation which carried a maximum sentence of five years and offered another plea deal. Travis was confident that the lack of a fingerprint match would result in a not guilty verdict. Acting on that confidence, Travis advised his client to turn down the plea deal and let the case go to trial.

In the time between the last plea deal and the trial, the prosecution offered a lesser sentence to the other individual in exchange for testimony that implicated the defendant in the crime. It almost seemed as though the prosecution was preying on the fact that the other individual had recently had a baby to effectively coerce a statement out of him and guarantee a conviction on the defendant.

In light of this testimony, the chances of a successful defense dropped to near zero. The most prudent choice became acceptance of the plea deal. However, the defendant still believed in his own innocence. At the meeting where a plea deal was due to be signed, the defendant asked if there was any way he could get a lesser sentence without admitting guilt. Travis could only say, “Your statement can include ‘Without admitting guilt, I concede that evidence is sufficient to secure a conviction’”.

This statement is indicative of the plea bargain process. Evidence is gathered only until a point in which a conviction is likely to be secured. The result is usually one in which due process is not fully realized; a coercive power says that evidence is sufficient and the coerced are obligated to accept that. Juries or even neutral magistrates do not necessarily review evidence, defendants do not confront their accusers in a neutral setting, and the liberty of individuals is a negotiating lever rather than a right of theirs to defend. Additionally, these defendants are effectively coerced into bearing witnesses against themselves. The burden of proof for prosecutors becomes easily bypassed through intimidation rather than effective prosecution. Or perhaps effective prosecution is replaced by effective intimidation.

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3 Responses to Plea Bargains: Replacing Effective Prosecution with Intimidation

  1. ajgoldsmith says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post, though I find the content to be disheartening. I believe the purpose of the justice system to live up to the ideal of its namesake — to provide justice. This should not mean prosecutors seeking convictions with any means at their disposal, even if it means putting a potentially innocent person in prison. While it is not clear whether or not the defendant was involved in the crime, there was reasonable doubts regarding his involvement in the crime. Based on the standards of our system, this should be enough to produce a not guilty statement. However, when Travis’ defendant’s case proved strong and was initially unwilling to take a plea bargain, the Prosecutor’s office gives the more likely guilty party a plea in exchange for testimony in order to coerce another plea bargain. How can we expect the testimony of said individual to be fair their jail time literally depends on their testimony against the accused?

    How do we go about solving the issue of plea bargaining if it can produce, what I believe to be, unnecessary cases of innocent people going to prison? We need to make several investments into our justice system on a matter of the principle that it is better for 10 guilty people to go free than one innocent person to be jailed. First of all, we need more public defenders who will receive better wages in order to attract the best and brightest to the profession. This will reduce the amount of cases each public defender has so they can give each client a rigorous trial defense. Secondly, we need to strive to educate our people about the rights that they have and the importance of them through civil discourse and a national conversation. Finally, we need to stop imprisoning non-violent offenders. Ultimately, I think we should create a justice system where no one should feel obligated to take a plea bargain because of the particular circumstances of the legal system. These actions will not eradicate injustice. There will always be another challenge to face. These are not viable excuses to prevent us from taking steps that can improve the lives of those who are the least represented, and least powerful, and least cared for among us.

  2. lgallar1 says:

    This is a very interesting article. I think this issue really makes you think about the issues in our criminal justice system. In my Criminal Justice class they describe the defenders job as someone who defends the defendant. As well, someone who keeps the prosecutor on check in their facts and keeps a type of check and balances in the court room. Other than that, I do not think all defenders are bad people and sadly in my Criminal Justice class they describe plea bargaining as a way to make cases be resolved faster, saves money and time from both the lawyers, judge and court staff. I do believe that every person being accused should have a trail and a fair one, but this is our system and it needs improvement.

  3. haleyschryver says:

    Public defenders have such a difficult job, and I think you did a good job of pointing this out. They are way overworked, and it is simply impossible to give 100% of their time and effort to each of their clients, even though they all do deserve the best defense possible. Instead of going through a trial, it is easier and cheaper just to plea, but that isn’t the best idea for all people. The whole system really needs to be overhauled in order to ensure that every person gets the thorough defense that they deserve.

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