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False Guilty Pleas: Who is to Blame - Prosecutors or Defense Lawyers?

By Charles E. Feldmann, Esq.

Aggressive, Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys are a crucial component in an accused obtaining justice in the criminal justice system.

Jed Rakoff, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, recently published an article in the November 2014 New York Review of Books in which he explains why an estimated 20,000 people are currently in prison for crimes they pleaded guilty to, but in fact did not commit.

Yes, you heard that right. 20,000 people are currently serving prison terms for crimes they did not commit, and yet they accepted a plea bargain in spite of their innocence!

Rakoff argues, “…our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone.”

Statistics back up Rakoff’s argument, since they indicate that 97% of federal criminal charges are resolved through plea bargaining. Only 3% of those accused of a federal crime take their case to trial. As Rakoff eloquently argues, our nation’s criminal justice system was built on the safeguards of a jury trial. State and Federal constitutions safeguard an accused’s right to a jury trial, confronting one’s accusers and aggressively defending against accusations with the assistant of a competent defense lawyer. Thomas Jefferson said, “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to principals of its constitution.”

With 2.2 million Americans presently in prison, the current federal system of prosecutor dominated and controlled plea bargaining has led to thousands of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they never committed. The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded 1,428 exonerations since 1989, with 10% of these exonerations involving false guilty pleas.

The Honorable Judge John L. Kane, a Federal District Court Judge in Denver, stated, “The so-called trial court is not primarily a trial court at all. It is a plea bargaining court.” (A View From the Bench, May 2015 National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, The Champion).

How does someone wrongfully accused of a crime protect themselves from a criminal justice system that has turned itself into “cafeteria justice”, as Judge Kane laments?

I would suggest something other than Jed Rakoff’s question of whether judges should get more involved in the plea bargaining process. Instead I suggest that defense attorneys should do the jobs they are desperately hired to do - win cases in front of juries. It takes an experienced, confident and competent criminal defense attorney to challenge a prosecutor’s plea bargain offer. It takes decades of experience to ensure that an accused is aggressively represented in front of a jury of their peers, when the prosecutor’s plea bargain is rejected by an accused.

I have been a practicing criminal trial lawyer for 23 years. I have tried almost every kind of criminal case in front of a jury, including death penalty cases, murder and serial rape cases. The criminal justice team at Feldmann Nagel, made up of past prosecutors and public defenders, former law enforcement officers and forensic psychologists, has worked on numerous sexual assault and complicated white collar criminal accusations. The aggressive firepower of the Feldmann Nagel team has directly lead to our record of success in ensuring that our clients never plead guilty to something they did not do. Our relentless pursuit of justice ensures that we never let a prosecutor dominate the inevitable plea bargain process and every member of our criminal justice team is an experienced trial lawyer first and foremost. Being able to aggressively and competently defend our clients in front of a jury of their peers is the first line of defense against the tyranny that Thomas Jefferson warned us about.

Contact our expert Criminal Law Group to assist you in your defense, at 1-888-458-0991.

Categories: Criminal Defense

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