Scrutinizing America's Guilty Plea Problem

When Johnny Vargas was pulled over for an incomplete stop in Massachusetts, police noticed a strange package on the passenger seat. Upon opening it, they found a brick of cocaine. Vargas vehemently insisted that he had never seen the package before, but when faced with a possible 15 years in prison for cocaine trafficking, he pled guilty, and in exchange received a sentence of just 7 years. He was exonerated after it came to light that the drugs had in fact been planted in his car.

For most of us, the concept of pleading guilty to a crime you didn’t commit seems impossible to comprehend. We assume that the innocent always have a chance to argue their case before a jury of their peers, when in fact our system is predicated on plea deals, making trials a relative rarity. Roughly ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the results of guilty pleas.

The Innocence Network, in collaboration with the Innocence Project, are launching the Guilty Plea Problem campaign today in an attempt to address the phenomenon of innocent people being forced to plead guilty. In New England, there have been 4 documented cases of innocent people pleading guilty. The phenomenon is almost certainly worst at the less serious end of the sentencing spectrum, in misdemeanor courts where almost every defendant pleads guilty.

"There are powerful incentives for people to plead guilty, even if they are, in fact, innocent," says NEIP Senior Staff Attorney Radha Natarajan. "When faced with charges, told there is enough evidence to convict, and warned of all the potential consequences -- including immigration, housing, family, and freedom -- the pressure is often too much for people to choose a trial.  This is true even when the evidence the prosecution is relying on is tainted, such as in the over 20,000 cases touched by notorious Massachusetts chemist, Annie Dookhan."

The New England exonerees who had taken guilty pleas (detailed below) are, sadly, the lucky minority.

Cheryl Adams was working as a cashier at a Cumberland Farms in Massachusetts when a loss-prevention worker accused her of stealing from the register. Confused, Adams denied all of the charges — until her interrogator, knowing that Adams was embroiled in a contentious divorce, warned her that she could lose custody of her son if she refused to sign a confession. After hours of interrogation, she eventually signed a confession stating that she had stolen over $10,000.

In 1990, a Boston man stopped a young girl at knifepoint, dragged her behind a dumpster, and fondled her. Minutes after the crime, police stopped Guy Randolph, a diagnosed schizophrenic, and asked the victim if Randolph was her attacker. She initially denied that he was, but later in the day identified him. She testified in court that Randolph was her attacker (despite much contradictory evidence) and Randolph’s lawyer convinced him to plead no-contest.

Bobby Johnson, a then-16 year old with limited intellectual capacity, was arrested for involvement in a fatal shooting in New Haven, Connecticut. The detective interrogating Johnson falsely informed him that they had found physical evidence linking Johnson to the murder, and, after hours of interrogation without either parent present, Johnson finally broke down and falsely confessed to his involvement in the murder.

People take plea deals for a variety of reasons, and plenty of those who plead guilty are, in fact, guilty. The problem is that the promise of reduced charges in exchange for a plea is presented to both the guilty and the innocent, setting the goal to the illusion of justice, instead of the actual realization of it.

 “The lack of available resources in the system incentivizes a culture of innocent people pleading out. In order to address wrongful convictions we need to work towards changing this culture, which would undoubtedly require increasing resources or decreasing arrests," says New England Innocence Project Executive Director Denise McWilliams.

Join us in working to end innocent people being forced to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit — a phenomenon which leaves the real perpetrators free to commit more crimes, and serves to enforce a mere illusion of justice in the United States.