Innocent People Submit to Guilty Pleas

football.jpgLast year, a lawyer referred me a case. Now, there’s nothing new about that, this happens all the time (And, I appreciate the love from non-criminal lawyers. Yes, I equate getting cash with love, can’t help it). Here’s the facts: Years ago, a young gentleman pled to a serious charge, and completed all of his probation. Years later, the prosecutor discovered, by accident, that his victim made up the whole story to get my client in trouble.

This may be shocking to Joe Q. Public, but we defense lawyers witness “victims” lying to prosecutors all the time. Unfortunately, few prosecutors have the time to question their “victim’s” sincerity. What made my case unique is the fact that the original prosecutor uncovered his own victim’s lies–and wanted something to be done to correct the situation. You see, there are some good people out there who happen to be lawyers, and furthermore, they happen to be prosecutors. Unfortunately, the original prosecutor left the office just after uncovering the lies, so I had to deal with a new prosecutor.

Negotiations with the new prosecutor did not go well, even though she knew her colleague’s position. The “new” assistant state attorney could not believe that my client was 100% innocent because “he must have been guilty; he entered a plea.” I just about fell over. I really like this prosecutor, but she clearly missed the mark on this one. Innocent citizens enter pleas all the time, because the risk of trial is too great. Those who have been around the criminal justice system understand that there are people in prison–right now–who are completely innocent, but entered a plea to avoid even further damage. [By the way, the judge overturned my client’s plea and dismissed the charges–over the prosecutor’s objections, of course]

The fact is, you cannot determine a person’s guilt or innocence based upon whether or not a plea was entered. People have jobs, families, mortgages, and children; all of which take precedence over a false accusation that can be resolved without prison time (or less prison time). Sometimes, innocent folks accept prison time just to avoid more prison time should they lose at trial.

For example, in 1990, Michael Phillips entered a guilty plea for the rape of a 16 year old girl. The plea deal was for 12 years prison, and he completed all 12 years (no gain time on rape). Almost twenty five years after entering his plea, something odd happened. The prosecutors internally audited themselves and discovered that the DNA found inside the victim did NOT belong to Phillips. Phillips was innocent. And, that prosecutor overturned his own conviction, without Phillips ever asking for any of this to be done on his behalf. This was done as part of a uniquely American (Texan) prosecutor’s office that created it’s very own “Conviction Integrity Unit” (I wrote an article about this, which you can find here).

Or, take the case of Brian Banks. As senior in high school back in 2002, Brian was a middle linebacker for Long Beach Poly High, and he was courted to play football for USC, UCLA, and others. All that changed based upon the rape accusations of sophomore Wanetta Gibson. He said the sex was consensual, she said it was rape.

Brian’s decision is the same one facing many defendants in a he-said-she-said case; 40+ years in prison if found guilty, or a plea to five years plus GPS monitoring to follow. Brian made a smart move, and took the five years. Ten years later, he completed his prison time and found himself an unemployed registered sex offender (What sex offender is employed? What sex offender can even find a place to live that isn’t within 1000 feet of something?). But then, the clouds parted and a beam of light came down from above–Gibson contacted Brian on Facebook and wanted to meet with him. Brian was smart enough to secretly record the meeting. In that recording, Gibson admits to lying (she wouldn’t admit such publicly because she received a $1.5 million settlement with the school, hate to give that money back…). Furthermore, it was later discovered that Gibson admitted to her friend that she lied about the rape in order to hide her sexual activities from her mother.

The point is, not everyone who enters a plea is guilty.