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Innocent yet Pleading Guilty: The Shocking Truth Behind Plea Bargains

In contemporary times, the United States’ criminal justice system has undergone quite a number of changes. In fact, it has evolved today to become one of the most complex judicial systems in the world. Despite its high merits, one of the things that really raises a lot of questions is the plea bargain. How come it become increasingly prevalent in so many cases today?

It begins with the history

The plea bargain became popular during the years after World War II. This was in response to resolve more than 80% of all criminal cases. However, at the time of its earlier inception, the plea bargain still had a lot of transparency in it. That is, a defendant who was truthfully innocent of a crime could select to go to trial and not fear that he or she might be subjecting themselves to an inevitably long and dreary prison sentence.

This dramatically changed during the 70s and 80s when crime in the US skyrocketed. This was as a result of the booming drug trade that had spread across major cities in America.  In response to this, federal legislatures proceeded to intensify the sentences of any criminal violations. One good example is the Rockefeller Laws of 1973, which gave a mandatory minimum of 15 years for anyone found selling 2 ounces of marijuana, heroin, or cocaine!

Plea bargains became more prevalent during the ‘70s and ‘80s after a rise in the drug trade

For example, the federal courts imposed a mandatory minimum of ten years and the maximum sentence of life if one was found distributing 5 or more kilograms of cocaine! With such strict rules put in place, it became increasingly effective for defendants to enter a plea bargain to have their sentences reduced.

Innocent but pleading guilty: a classic case that defied all odds

In 2008, James Owen confidently walked into a Baltimore courtroom despite being in chains and shackles. He had spent about 20 years in prison after being convicted for life. He finally had a chance to prove his innocence after the state had wrongfully convicted him of a crime he did not commit.

He had been unlawfully imprisoned until DNA tests revealed that the body fluids discovered on the victim were not his. In response, a Maryland court put aside his conviction and opted to give him another trial.

State prosecutors, on the other hand, played hardball, insisting they still had sufficient evidence to keep him behind bars. In fact, they offered him the Alford plea; a deal that required him to plead guilty and in response, he was guaranteed an instant release from prison without the danger of facing a conviction or even a retrial.

State prosecutors work behind the scenes to ensure that most wrongfully convicted persons do not get exonerated and have the right to sue the state.

The other components of the Alford pleas were that Owens could go on record and say that he was innocent of his crime; however, he could not get a chance at exoneration. That means that legally, he was still a killer!

Owen turned down the deal to clear his name. Unfortunately, he spent another 16 months in prison for this decision. But lady luck was on his side because he was later exonerated and had every right to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment.

The ugly side of the plea bargain.

Courts usually determine the guilt or innocence of an individual before conviction. After that, the courts will now turn their attention to fairness. Was the process lived up to and were all the duties duly followed? In fact, it can be quite difficult for a convict to get a hearing, let alone win the case. Even enough evidence that might have been recently unearthed may sometimes not be enough for the case to be given a review. And in the case that it does, convicts are usually coerced into a plea bargain; and the Alford plea to be specific.

The real problem with such deals is that they expose a lot of innocent people to stigma. These individuals are also unable to sue the state and claim compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

Unlawful imprisonment and sentencing can cause innocent convicts stigma and emotional distress

Wrongful convictions are depressing and horrible, but it becomes even more miserable when a person that was improperly convicted does not have a chance to legally prove their freedom; or get rightful compensation for the unwarranted time they served in jail.

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