Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Abdulmutallab and Plea Bargaining

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has an interesting article today entitled "Why Not Just Let Abdulmutallab Plead Guilty?"

On Monday, the accused Christmas Day bomber, Umar Faroukh Abdulmutallab, told Detroit federal judge Nancy G. Edmunds that he wanted to represent himself.

He also asked Judge Edmunds whom he should talk to if he wanted “to plead guilty to some counts.”

But Judge Edmunds didn’t just accept Abdulmutallab’s request. She peppered Abdulmutallab with questions about his understanding of U.S. law and criminal procedure. She told him it was unwise to move forward without a lawyer, though she said she’s ultimately let him do that. She also said she wouldn’t accept a guilty plea now.

So why not? Why would a judge put a defendant like Abdulmutallab through the wringer before granting what appear to be reasonable requests?

We did a little reporting in pursuit of this answer yesterday — click here for the sidebar that ran in the WSJ.

The federal court system makes it hard to chuck your lawyers and plead guilty for several reasons. For starters, judges want to make sure defendants are pleading guilty willingly and knowingly — partly to rule out that they made the decision under duress or threat of coercion. There’s a practical reason, too. A judge’s failure to press the defendant could lead to a plea unraveling down the line if the defendant changes his or her mind.

In recent months, a number of other terrorism suspects have pleaded guilty at least partly out of a seeming desire to protest U.S. foreign policy. Judges in these cases often ask exacting questions of the defendant in order to test the defendant’s knowledge of the plea. For instance, in June, New York federal judge Miriam Cedarbaum repeatedly interrupted Faisal Shazad, the mastermind of the attempted Times Square bombing, with questions about the plot during his plea hearing.

But isn’t there something wrong with this picture? Isn’t the legal system getting in the way of itself? Well, yes, said Wayne State law professor Peter Henning. “The legal system gets in the way of itself all the time, but that’s what it’s designed to do. If you let this guy plead guilty, he’ll likely spend the rest of his life in jail.”
Click here for the full article.

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