We truly live in wondrous times. At one time people held inconvenient beliefs about people being innocent until proven guilty by a jury of 12 impartial individuals. Today is a simpler time where most cases never go to trail. Instead the State merely coerces accused individuals into admitting guilt:
The presumption of innocence helps to combat prejudice and prejudging in the U.S. criminal justice system. But because plea bargains have supplanted trials in our criminal justice system, that presumption does not apply to most cases in the United States.
Unfortunately, the system that is described by our school teachers and that Americans see on television and in the movies is now defunct. Jury trials are now rare events in the United States. In fact, about 95 percent of the cases moving through the system will not go to trial. The overwhelming majority of cases will be resolved by plea bargains.
In a plea bargain, the prosecutor typically offers the defendant a reduced prison sentence if he agrees to waive his right to a jury trial and admit guilt in a brief hearing before a judge. Prosecutors use their power to pressure people who have been accused of a crime, and are presumed innocent, to waive their right to a trial and admit guilt.
We know this is true because prosecutors admit that this is what they are doing. The Supreme Court has approved these prosecutorial tactics in the landmark 1978 case, Bordenkircher v. Hayes. By a close 5-4 vote, the court said there was no constitutional problem with pressuring the accused to waive his trial and admit guilt. According to the court, there is no illegal coercion “so long as the accused is free to accept or reject the prosecution’s offer.”
The article touches on the folly of this system but I want to make another important point.
A person accused of a crime isn’t involved in a fair game. From the very beginning of a case, where the accused is arrested, the deck is stacked against them. Cops can lie to them but they can’t lie to the cops. So the accused is at an immediate information disadvantage because the cops and lie about evidence, witness testimony, and other things that can make a charge look hopeless to fight. Prosecutors have the right to threaten an accused with decades of prison time whereas the accused has no right to threaten the prosecutor with, say, a retaliatory lawsuit if it’s later found out that they’re innocent. In addition to that it’s also not uncommon for an accused party to front their legal defense fees even if they are found innocent.
The deal presented to the accused party isn’t fair by any sane definition. No matter what avenue they choose they’re at a major disadvantage. Admitting guilt and taking the lesser sentence seems like a good choice when the alternative is a longer sentence and tremendous legal defense fees. Especially when, as far as the accused knows, the evidence against them is thoroughly damning.
A legal system that favors one side over the other cannot be considered an engine for justice. It is merely a formality that allows the advantaged side to declare its actions just when it crushes the disadvantaged side.