What Would You Do?

You know you haven’t done anything wrong, so you have always assumed that you have nothing to worry about from police officers and prosecutors. Maybe a remote chance of a misunderstanding, but nothing that couldn’t be quickly cleared up. After all, why would the police bother you when you do not break any laws?

Now consider the nightmare case of James Calvin Tillman.

The police arrest Tillman for rape. He asserts his innocence, but the victim says she is sure that he is the culprit. Prosecutors offer Tillman a plea bargain. If Tillman will agree to waive his right to a trial and plead guilty, the state will agree to a 8 year prison sentence. However, if Tillman declines the deal and exercises his right to a trial, the state promises to seek the maximum penalty: 45 years imprisonment.

Questions:

What do you think a guilty man would do in such circumstances?

What would you have done in those circumstances?

What do you think Tillman did?

Tillman went to trial and was found guilty. After serving 18 years in prison for doing nothing wrong, he was just released on the basis of a recent DNA test.

It is always curious how the Governor, the Mayor, the Warden, the District Attorney, and the Police Chief never seem to be on the scene when the wrongly convicted person is released from jail. Maybe they just happened to be out of town on more important business!

Anyway, some people hold the view that it is not realistic to expect perfection. They say, “What’s important here is that a tragic mistake was discovered and corrected. The system worked.” Well, yes, but does it not make sense to see how that mistake was discovered and to consider ways in which such mistakes can be avoided in the future?

If we assume that the police and prosecutors are correct 95 percent of the time, then there are 100,000 innocent people in prison. On top of that, thousands and thousands more may not be locked up, but they have acquired criminal records because they got swept up in a police investigation and no one in the government believed their story.

At the risk of sounding unsophisticated, one way to minimize the mistakes is to actually have more trials, so that an impartial jury can weigh evidence. We really don’t have trials anymore. The cases that you hear about on the news—Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Enron CEOs—are part of the paltry 4 percent of cases that go to trial. Our courthouses are mostly gigantic plea bargaining centers. And plea bargaining rests upon the legal fiction that the government does not retaliate against a person for exercising his constitutional right to a trial.

When a judge accepts a plea deal, he’ll ask whether the accused is pleading guilty “voluntarily.” This is a staged ceremony. No one is supposed to mention the prosecutorial threats (we’ll throw the book at you!) that will be carried out if the accused insists upon a trial.

One might say, “Tillman got a trial and look what happened to him.” True enough, but I suspect many, many more errors are buried in the plea bargaining statistics.

Let’s reduce the dishonesty and wrongful prosecutions in our system by abolishing plea bargaining.