Exonerations Involving Pleas by Innocent Defendants Increasing

I was recently interviewed by the Houston Chronicle regarding the case of Corey Anthony Love.
It's more than likely that Corey Anthony Love has no earthly idea he has been found innocent of the crime to which he pleaded guilty seven years ago and for which he spent 105 days in state jail...

Love was one of 87 listed in the annual report of the National Register of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. Texas led the nation with 13 exonerations.

His case was hardly the stuff of headlines and outrage. He did not spend decades in prison as an innocent man. He wasn't railroaded by an unscrupulous prosecutor or condemned to a life of hell by mistaken identity or shoddy forensic work.

His was a minor drug offense. He pleaded guilty to the crime. He served relatively little time behind bars.

But to the authors of the report, what makes Love's case, and the other six cases in Harris and Montgomery counties like his, significant is that they represent a growing number of exonerations in cases where no crimes were committed at all and in which the defendants had pleaded guilty.
During the interview, I discussed the prevalence of plea bargaining and the significant innocence issues that can result from the powerful incentives that exist to engage in bargained justice.
What is not known is precisely how many of those plea bargains involve people confessing to crimes they did not commit, said Lucian Dervan, a law professor at Southern Illinois University who has written extensively on plea bargains.

"Plea bargaining dominates the criminal justice system," he said. "In dealing with more minor offenses - offenses for which the individual is likely to receive time served (or probation) if they plead guilty - in those cases the incentive to confess to the crime even if you haven't committed it is extremely high. The reward for saying you had done something is to go home; the punishment for failing to say that is to stay in jail and wait to have an opportunity some point in the future to reveal innocence at trial."

No one except Love, who already had a previous conviction for marijuana possession, can say why he agreed to plead guilty. And there are myriad reasons why someone would confess to something he didn't do.

Inger Hampton, chief of the Harris County district attorney's conviction review section, thinks she has a partial answer.

"People plead guilty for a number of different reasons," she said. "They plead guilty because they are guilty. They plead guilty because they feel guilty about something else. They plead guilty because 'I thought I had cocaine and I don't even know that it's not cocaine.' There are a lot of thought processes that go into that decision."

One that doesn't, however, said Dervan, is any consideration for the "collateral consequences." Most people in custody are intensely focused on getting out of custody; they'll say anything if it means going home.
The entire Houston Chronicle article is available here.


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