The plea bargain myth
Securing life with death
Some say we need the death penalty to secure confessions and plea deals to get life without parole. More and more, we are finding out that this is simply not so. States without the death penalty have some of the highest rates of inmates serving life without parole, without ever having to use execution as a bargaining chip. Most prosecutors consider such use of the death penalty unethical anyway, and for good reason – it’s just one more cause of wrongful convictions.
States don’t need the threat of death to get life
- States without the death penalty have some of the highest rates of prisoners serving life without parole in the country – proving that you don’t need the death penalty to secure a life without parole sentence. Massachusetts, which has no death penalty, has one of the highest percentages of prisoners serving life without parole sentences in the nation. Indeed, three of the top five states in the nation have no death penalty.1
- Prosecutors in New Jersey say that repeal of the death penalty there in 2007 has made no difference in their ability to secure guilty pleas.2
- During the ten years New York had a death penalty, prosecutors secured plea bargains at a higher rate in second-degree murder cases than in first-degree murder cases. If the death penalty played a key role in securing pleas, the opposite would be true, since death was always an option in first-degree murder cases.3
- In Alaska, plea bargaining was abolished completely in 1975. A 1980 study by the National Institute of Justice found that since the end of plea bargaining, "guilty pleas continued to flow in at nearly undiminished rates. Most defendants pled guilty even when the state offered them nothing in exchange for their cooperation."4
Death as a threat risks convicting the innocent
- Many people sentenced to life and later found innocent were originally threatened with the death penalty and accepted a guilty plea and a life sentence in order to avoid an execution. These men are the walking evidence that plea bargaining with the death penalty is not only unethical, it is downright dangerous.
- It may be hard to imagine that an innocent person would confess to crimes they did not commit. But false confessions occur more often than we realize, especially when a suspect is under duress or trying to avoid a harsher punishment like death.
Case in point: After the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson in Beatrice, Nebraska, six people were threatened with the death penalty. Five pled guilty and four of them confessed in order to avoid execution. The "Beatrice 6" spent over two decades behind bars for a crime they did not commit. The Governor and Attorney General of Nebraska finally granted them pardons in 2009, after DNA tests proved they were innocent.5
Case in point: Chris Ochoa was sentenced to life for the 1988 rape and murder of Nancy DePriest in Austin, Texas. He was threatened with the death penalty. On the advice of his attorney, he pled guilty to the murder and fingered his friend, Richard Danziger, for the rape. In 2001, DNA testing revealed that both Ochoa and Danziger were innocent. They were exonerated and released from prison, but Danziger never really got his life back – he was severely beaten in prison and remains brain damaged to this day, in the care of his sister.6
Case in point: In 1991, the state of Maryland threatened Anthony Gray with the death penalty for a murder in Calvert County. He confessed to the crime to avoid execution and was sentenced to life, even though neither DNA nor fingerprints matched him or his co-defendants. Gray spent eight years in prison – including a year and a half after the person actually responsible for the murder had been found and convicted – before he was exonerated and freed.
Life and death are too important to be used as a bargaining chip. The death penalty’s many flaws don’t go away when the aim is securing a life sentence. Indeed, the risks only increase when innocent people are coerced to confess in order to spare their own lives.
- 1. As of 2003. Massachusetts has 7.9% of it’s population serving life without parole – the third highest percent in the country. Iowa is fourth, with 6.6% of prisoners serving life without parole, and West Virginia is fifth with 6.4%. None of those states had the threat of the death penalty to secure those sentences. Marc Mauer, Ryan S. King, Malcolm C. Young, “The Meaning of ‘Life’: Long Prison Sentences in Context”, The Sentencing Project, May 2004.
- 2. Rudy Lardini, "A year later, state assesses justice without death penalty," in The New Jersey Star Ledger, December 15, 2008.
- 3. From about 1995 to 2004, 47% of second-degree murder cases were resolved through plea bargains, compared to only 41% of first degree cases.
- 4. Ralph Adam Fine, "Plea Bargaining: An Unnecessary Evil," in Criminal Justice, Robert Bidinotto, ed. Irving-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996; cited in "Plea Bargaining: Economic Costs and Benefits," Undergraduate paper for The Economics of the Law, Washington University in St. Louis, 5 December 1996; http://www.dianahsieh.com/undergrad/pb.html
- 5. P. Hammel, "Pardons granted to five in murder they didn't commit," Omaha World-Herald, January 27, 2009.
- 6. The Innocence Project
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