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Pleading With Satan

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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Supporters of plea deals also point out that a plea agreement, requiring only the approval of the judge, saves the court endless hours of litigation.

From a defendant's perspective, writes Tim Lynch, "plea bargaining extorts guilty pleas. People who have never been prosecuted may think there is no way they would plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. But when the government has a "witness' who is willing to lie, and your own attorney urges you to accept one year in prison rather than risk a ten-year jury sentence, the decision becomes harder."

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But not always. To begin with, what if the defendants are innocent? Such things have been known to happen with frequency in courtrooms all across the county. In this situation, innocent people are getting locked up for crimes they did not commit.

And sometimes the choice of plea or no plea seems like no choice at all. Four men from upstate New York were arrested for "material support of terrorism" a few years ago. The prosecutor's deal was "confess or you will find yourself in Guantanamo Bay forever." The four confessed and are serving time in the US.

Or how about a plea when the defendants are guilty? Why should guilty men get reduced sentences when they know they're guilty. The answer is: Because they Can. 

By signing on with the DA, the guilty party absolves him/herself of guilt for the crime he was to be charged with (more serious) and accepts the one he's plead to (less serious). Which could mean the criminal would be out on the street and doing what he does while those charged with the original crime are still serving their time.

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Why has this happened? There are a number of reasons but the primary one is cost. The costs of preparing a case, empanelling a jury, and conducting an average trial, tends to vary somewhat depending on location, complexity, time required, and other factors. But a recent Wyoming murder trial believed to be at the low end of the cost scale cost $111,000.

Later, if the defendant is found guilty, it will cost $55.09 on average per day or $20,108 per year to keep an inmate in prison (FY0708),

The impact on the courts' caseloads is immediate. The 1,195 jury trials conducted in 2011 are one-third the number held in 1996, according to the Texas Administrative Office of Courts. During the same period, the number of lawsuits filed rose 25 percent. In 1996, juries decided one out of every 48 lawsuits filed. Last year, only one in 183 new complaints.

Says Houston trial lawyer David Beck, "We are seeing our rights to trial by jury disappear before our eyes." To which many other lawyers, judges and defendants argue that justice should never be held hostage to the mountain of unprocessed paper work that might one day become the organized basis of a real jury trial.

Someone -- a lot of someones -- ought to be reminding our President that justice is not simply a cost-benefit analysis. Some of our sentencing rules may well be demented, but we do have rules. They should be changed, then followed.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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