innocent but still punished

wrongfully convicted

New York Federal Judge: Tens of Thousands of Innocent People Have Likely Pleaded Guilty

A prominent New York federal judge said this week that a broken guilty plea system is sending too many people innocent people to prison, coerced by the threat of long prison sentences and not enough information.

by Nicole Flatow, Prison Reform Movement’s Weblog

May 30, 2014

US District Judge Jed Rakoff said the modern American system in which 97% of defendants plead guilty “is totally different from what the founding fathers had in mind.” Rakoff elaborated on his concerns during an interview with the New York Daily News, a month after he first raised the issue during a speech at the University of Southern California.

Rakoff blamed draconian mandatory minimum sentences for coercing defendants into accepting plea deals, forcing defendants to “choose between Satan and Lucifer.” He cited estimates that between 1 and 8 percent of those who plead guilty are actually innocent. Even if that percentage were just 0.5 percent, that would be 10,000 people, he tells the New York Daily News.

We only know about a fraction of this population, and they are particularly difficult to identify, since many defendants consider their case finalized once they make the calculation to enter a plea. In 2013, 87 people were exonerated—17% for false guilty pleas.

Chris Ochoa, now exonerated, explained that he was coerced by a threat even greater than a mandatory minimum—capital punishment—if he didn’t confess. “After many hours of interrogation and threats I was just worn down and I told them what I wanted to hear,” he said, noting that he later agreed to plead guilty.

Rakoff isn’t optimistic that mandatory minimum sentences will be eliminated, even if they are reformed at the federal level. So he is also proposing a more formal plea bargain process in which “junior judges” would oversee talks between prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers. The mini-proceeding would include a presentation of evidence and a non-binding recommendation from the judge. He hasn’t yet articulated a formal proposal.

Rakoff has never shied from controversy. In 2002, he declared the federal death penalty statute unconstitutional — and was quickly overturned. And last year, he blasted the US Justice Department for not prosecuting Wall Street executives. But he also contributes his perspective as a former criminal defense attorney, a decreasingly common credential for federal judicial nominees in a field that is overwhelmed by lawyers with corporate backgrounds.


Nicole Flatow is deputy editor at ThinkProgress Justice.


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1 Response to “innocent but still punished”

  1. June 2, 2014 at 7:17 am

    The way lawyers stick together is incredible. I believe there is no stronger syndicate on the planet. And money is all they care about, not the truth or what can be proven. Also, they don’t like long trials. Just as a real-estate agent will recommend you to buy a place you hate, simply because its value will increase, a lawyer will recommend you to plea guilty simply because it’s.. quicker (making their personal record more impressive). The same goes for the police – arresting an innocent man early is far more useful than arresting a guilty one late. The media will pressure the public and the public will pressure the police. Of course, these days the police will choose the easier path even before any pressure arises.

    The only way to eliminate the wrongful practice is to make better laws, eliminating the influence of corrupt judges. Also, the laws must be much more clear, so ordinary people can understand them, even without a lawyer. And they must be in better proportion, so that if you commit a financial fraud which brings misery to millions, you are tried as a large scale criminal. Instead, that’s where the minimum sentences seem to be the lowest. And if you cause a world financial crisis, with tens of millions losing their jobs and homes, not only you don’t get arrested, you don’t even lose any money. America will even change its economy type from capitalist to socialist for you.

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