So do innocent people plead guilty? I’ve read comments from the public, one theme is repeated over and over, “innocent people do not plead guilty”. But is that true? Is it really true that every innocent person takes his case all the way through trial if the case is not dismissed by the prosecuting attorney? Why would an attorney allow his client to plead guilty if his client was not guilty.
Recently in the news, it was reported that a republican law maker in Idaho, Mark Patterson, plead guilty to “assault with the intent to commit rape” in 1974. Apparently he was charged with the crime of rape after a woman accused him of forcing her into his home, and threatening to release his dog on her should she refuse to have sex with him. It was reported that he claimed she had consensual sex with him, and she asked for money afterwards. He refused, so she fabricated the story of him raping her in retaliation.
I am not in a position to judge the merits of the case, but the story brings up interesting issues that I am prepared to talk about. Mr. Patterson claims that he plead guilty of a lesser charge to avoid the risk of being convicted of rape and receiving jail time. He also received a ‘withheld judgment‘ as part of the plea deal.
In a perfect world every wrongfully charged defendant would have his case dismissed, and every attorney would have a crystal ball to see whether his client is really guilty or innocent, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.
We live in a world where people do make false accusations, where weak cases based on weak evidence are pressed by the State despite the weakness of the case, where juries sometimes make the wrong verdict, where Defendant’s claim innocence when they are in fact guilty, and where Defendant’s plead guilty when they are in fact innocent.
Attorneys have to evaluate a case based on the evidence before them, and many cases are based on the testimony of witnesses. Those witnesses almost always disagree with each other. As an attorney I will have a client tell me that he didn’t do the thing he is accused of, but there are witness statements claiming that he did. I interview the witnesses, and try to evaluate the likelihood that a jury would believe them over my client. I look for witnesses who will support my clients case. In the end, almost every jury trial is risky.
A jury will have to decide which witnesses to believe, and there is always a risk that the jury will believe the State’s witnesses. With risks like this, and so much to lose, Defendant’s will sometimes cut their losses, and avoid the risk of going to trial. In cases of “he said/she said”, attorneys are not in a position to decide definitively the innocence or guilt of their client. If they knew for a fact that their client was innocent, then of course they should not advise their client to plead guilty. But more often than not, an attorney can only judge risk based on what the attorney knows, and since the attorney was not present during the allegations, he cannot know for certain.
An innocent man cannot know for certain whether he will be convicted or not. When a jury has to make a decision based purely on witnesses testimonies, there is always a risk that the jury will believe the State’s witnesses over the Defendant’s witnesses. This risk is one of the driving forces behind Defendant’s pleading guilty, whether they are innocent or guilty of the charges. It is conceivable in Mr. Patterson’s case for example that he was given an offer too good to pass up, a reduced charge of assault with intent to rape, a withheld judgment, and no additional jail. Mr. Patterson probably knew that if he were to refuse the offer and go to trial on the Rape charge, and if he lost, he would probably go to prison, and would not receive a withheld judgment. If he took the offer his case would be dismissed after a period of probation. The offer may have been too good to pass up. The risk of going to trial was too great. And Mr. Patterson’s attorney could not have known for sure that his client was indeed innocent. Therefore he probably advised his client that the deal was a good deal, and that he should probably take it. Not to mention, he knew the case would ultimately be dismissed in the end.
One thing you can know for sure, at least in 2013 in Idaho, the State would never offer a withheld judgment, no jail and a reduced charge of assault with intent to commit rape, on a strong rape case. If the State had solid evidence, they would push forward on the Rape Charge, a judgment of conviction, and would likely seek a prison sentence. The fact that Mr. Patterson received such a soft sentence is actually an indication that the State’s evidence against him was not overwhelming.
Another reason a Defendant may plead guilty even when he is innocent is because he is incarcerated, and the State has offered to release him after he enters a guilty plea. It’s hard for those who have never been to jail to understand the stress and agony that someone in custody feels. Many inmates are somewhat out of their minds while in jail. It is, for most Defendants, the worst experience of their life and their desperation will often lead them to plead guilty even when they are innocent. This is one of the unfortunate results of the requirement that the accused be held in custody during the pendency of their case if they cannot afford to post the bond. It has the effect of putting the Defendant under duress to plead guilty, whether that is the intended effect or not.
Like I said, I am not in a position to judge the merit’s of Mr. Patterson’s case. It appears that these allegations may have not been the only allegations Mr. Patterson faced, which may lead some to say lightening rarely strikes in the same place twice. I am only offering a response to those who say “innocent men never plead guilty”.