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?
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