Trial or deal? Some driven to plead guilty, later ex­on­er­ated

US ‘crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem has lost its way’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Three days into his car­jack­ing trial in 2005, James Ochoa faced a daunt­ing choice: Risk spend­ing the rest of his life in prison if con­victed by a Cal­i­for­nia jury or plead guilty and be re­leased in two years. Ochoa, then 20 and on pro­ba­tion for drug pos­ses­sion, had al­ready re­jected two plea of­fers and wanted to prove his in­no­cence. But the judge made it clear the odds were against him be­cause he had been iden­ti­fied by the vic­tims as the per­pe­tra­tor. If con­victed, Ochoa feared he would never see his young son again.

“I felt like I was gam­bling with my life,” he said from his home in the Dal­las area. He pleaded guilty to armed rob­bery and spent about a year in prison be­fore DNA linked the crime to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and re­leased within days. Hun­dreds of oth­ers have faced the same dilemma. More than 300 of the more than 1,900 peo­ple who have been ex­on­er­ated in the US since 1989 pleaded guilty, according to an es­ti­mate by the Na­tional Reg­istry of Ex­on­er­a­tions.

The reg­istry is main­tained by the Univer­sity of Michi­gan Law School us­ing pub­lic in­for­ma­tion, such as court doc­u­ments and news articles. Last year, 68 out of 157 ex­on­er­a­tions were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any pre­vi­ous year. Crit­ics say the num­bers re­flect an over­whelmed crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem with pub­lic de­fend­ers who have more cases than they can han­dle and ex­pe­di­ence on the part of court of­fi­cials, who can save the govern­ment money with plea bar­gains com­pared with costly tri­als.

In­no­cent peo­ple plead guilty

“Our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem has lost its way,” said David O Markus, a prom­i­nent Mi­ami de­fense at­tor­ney. “For a long time, it was our coun­try’s crown jewel, built on the prin­ci­ple that it was bet­ter that 10 guilty go free than one in­no­cent be wrong­fully con­victed. Now sadly, the sys­tem ac­cepts and even en­cour­ages in­no­cent peo­ple to plead guilty.” In the 1970s and 1980s, state and fed­eral law­mak­ers re­acted to ris­ing crime rates by im­pos­ing manda­tory min­i­mums and other sen­tenc­ing laws to crack down on felons.

As the penal­ties and risk of go­ing to prison grew, so did the per­cent­age of de­fen­dants who opted to plead guilty. Last year, more than 97 per­cent of crim­i­nal de­fen­dants sen­tenced in fed­eral court pleaded guilty com­pared with about 85 per­cent more than 30 years ago, according to data col­lected by the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the US Courts. The in­crease in guilty pleas has been a grad­ual rise over the last three decades. No en­tity gath­ers sta­tis­tics for all state courts, but prose­cu­tors, de­fense at­tor­neys and law pro­fes­sors say they have also seen more cases at that level re­solved by guilty pleas and fewer cases go­ing to trial.

“When the penal­ties are so high, no one wants to take the risk of go­ing to trial be­cause if you lose, you’re go­ing to go away for a long, long time,” said Jed Rakoff, a fed­eral judge in New York. No one knows ex­actly how many in­no­cent peo­ple are be­hind bars for plead­ing guilty. So­ci­ol­o­gists have es­ti­mated that be­tween 2 and 8 per­cent of peo­ple who plead guilty are in fact in­no­cent, said Rakoff, who has stud­ied the is­sue for years.

DNA and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion

In Ochoa’s case, he was charged with two counts of armed rob­bery and car­jack­ing. Au­thor­i­ties said the crime oc­curred out­side a night­club in Buena Park, Cal­i­for­nia. He faced 15 years to life in prison. Ochoa’s at­tor­ney, Scott Borth­wick, said he tried to talk him out of plead­ing guilty. Ochoa’s DNA wasn’t on any­thing in­side the stolen car, but the car­jack­ing vic­tims pos­i­tively iden­ti­fied him. Borth­wick said the judge told him dur­ing a meet­ing in his cham­bers that if Ochoa was con­victed by ju­rors, the judge would give him the max­i­mum: life. About 10 months af­ter he pleaded guilty, another man was ar­rested in a dif­fer­ent car­jack­ing.

The DNA found in the car in Ochoa’s case matched the man, who con­fessed to the crime. Af­ter Ochoa’s re­lease, he joined his fam­ily, who had moved to the Dal­las area. He was turned down for jobs at Wal­mart and other places be­cause the vi­o­lent felony still showed up on his record, he said. An of­fi­cer for the Cal­i­for­nia Vic­tim Com­pen­sa­tion and Govern­ment Claims Board ini­tially rec­om­mended that Ochoa not re­ceive any money for his im­pris­on­ment, say­ing Ochoa contributed to his er­ro­neous con­viction by pleaded guilty. But in the end, the board granted Ochoa $31,700. He also got $550,000 to set­tle his law­suit against the city of Buena Park and its police depart­ment.

Ochoa used the money to buy a house and be­gan work­ing as an elec­tri­cian. That’s how he now sup­ports his wife and two kids. Even those who are close to Ochoa don’t un­der­stand why he pleaded guilty. His brother calls him dumb and his dad says he wouldn’t have signed the deal, Ochoa said. “It’s hard for a per­son that hasn’t been through that to un­der­stand the way it is,” Ochoa said. “I didn’t want to plead guilty for some­thing I didn’t do. I wanted to fight it.” Judge Robert Fitzger­ald, who heard Ochoa’s case, de­clined through a spokes­woman for the Or­ange County Su­pe­rior Court to com­ment.

Or­ange County District At­tor­ney An­thony Rack­auckas, whose of­fice pros­e­cuted it, said he was not im­me­di­ately avail­able for com­ment. Those who were ex­on­er­ated af­ter plead­ing guilty of­ten have prior crim­i­nal records, like Ochoa, and come from poor back­grounds and are not well-ed­u­cated. They’re typ­i­cally rep­re­sented by pub­lic de­fend­ers jug­gling dozens of cases in a day and look­ing to cut good deals for their clients. Many were cleared of wrong­do­ing by tak­ing a new look at DNA ev­i­dence in blood or other body flu­ids, according to the Univer­sity of Michi­gan data­base.

Fal­si­fied fin­ger­print

Some were the vic­tims of pros­e­cu­to­rial mis­con­duct, while shoddy police work was to blame in other cases - such as a mis­taken FBI hair anal­y­sis or fal­si­fied fin­ger­print ev­i­dence. Some falsely con­fessed be­cause of im­proper in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques while oth­ers, like Ochoa, main­tained their in­no­cence through­out. It’s not just prose­cu­tors and de­fense at­tor­neys who seek to cut plea deals. Many judges pre­fer that route. Judges who re­solve cases rather than let them lan­guish tend to be seen as more suc­cess­ful. Sim­i­larly, prose­cu­tors who close cases tend to rise faster in their ca­reers.

US Mag­is­trate Judge Dave Lee Bran­non of West Palm Beach, Florida, out­lined his rea­son­ing for a deal-first ap­proach in a re­cent case in­volv­ing vic­tims of a se­rial sex mo­lester. The vic­tims had sued the fed­eral govern­ment be­cause the mo­lester, a wealthy and well-con­nected fi­nancier, was al­lowed to plead guilty to lesser charges with­out the vic­tims’ ad­vance knowl­edge. Bran­non urged the two sides to set­tle. “If you go to trial, you’re go­ing to lose con­trol of the out­come. No­body knows for sure how this is go­ing to turn out,” he said. “Set­tle the case. That’s the way to move on.” —AP

The Supreme Court is seen in Wash­ing­ton. If a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion fol­lows through on cam­paign prom­ises, the Supreme Court’s po­ten­tial work­load could shrink dra­mat­i­cally. —AP

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