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.