Can you plead guilty and maintain your innocence?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 5 2001 4:30 PM

Can You Plead Guilty and Maintain Your Innocence?

 

 

Last week, former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson pleaded guilty to having planted bombs under police cars 25 years ago and then denied her guilt to reporters moments later, telling them she entered the plea because she feared she couldn't get a fair trial in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The next day, her judge scheduled a hearing to determine whether to set aside her plea. Does a criminal or civil defendant have to believe sincerely in her plea for it to stick in a court of law?

Advertisement

No. In a landmark 1970 case, North Carolina v. Alford, the defendant pleaded guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a trial on a first-degree murder charge—which carried a possible capital sentence. When entering his plea, the defendant claimed he was innocent of the crime but too afraid of the death penalty to risk a trial. The judge accepted Alford's plea, and the U.S. Supreme Court later held that a guilty plea made out of alleged fear or coercion is still valid. "[T]hat he would not have pleaded except for the opportunity to limit the possible penalty does not necessarily demonstrate that the plea of guilty was not the product of a free and rational choice." A 1970 California Supreme Court decision also holds that as a matter of state law, a defendant can plead guilty while still asserting innocence if there is enough evidence against her to support a finding of guilt.

While nothing required Olson's judge to reopen proceedings, based on her public statements of innocence, nothing prohibited him from reopening the case or rejecting her plea and forcing the case to go to trial. Judges in criminal cases are uniquely responsible for determining whether a plea entered is fair and uncoerced. Whether or not a judge is willing to accept a plea that may have been motivated by fears turns more on that judge's theory of coercion than anything else. Since up to 90 percent of criminal convictions result from plea bargaining, and at least 90 percent of the people in prison seem to insist that they are innocent, it stands to reason that the criminal justice system will not necessarily invalidate a guilty plea simply because the defendant makes out-of-court statements about his innocence.

Bonus Explainer: Daisy Manufacturing Co. recently settled a product liability suit for approximately $18 million after a BB was dislodged and shot from an allegedly defective magazine in one of their BB guns, leaving a 16-year-old boy in a near-vegetative condition. Having paid out on the settlement, Daisy's position remains that nothing is wrong with their product. Does that claim affect their settlement?

No. Some settlement agreements can contain "gag provisions" barring the parties from discussing the settlement. For the most part, however, the rules of free speech and the efficiencies of the settlement process mandate that no criminal defendant, or civil litigant, must say they were wrong publicly in order to be found wrong in the eyes of the law. Judges tend to view civil settlements with even less suspicion than plea bargains, considering them private agreements between parties and without the inherently coercive dangers of a criminal prosecution.

Explainer thanks professors Robert Weisberg at StanfordLawSchool and Laurie Levenson at LoyolaLawSchool.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.