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Innocent defendants sometimes admit to guilt in exchange for lighter sentence

According to a recent report by the National Registry of Exonerations, there were a record number of exonerations last year. The total number of exonerations in 2013 was 87, which beat the previous record of 83 in 2009. To put that into perspective, there have been a total of 1,300 exonerations documented since 1989. Most of these involve convictions for sexual assault and murder. Almost half of the convictions were for murder.

What was particularly interesting about the report is that in a substantial portion of the cases, the accused person originally pleaded guilty to the crime. Typically this happens in cases where the defendant is offered a plea bargain guaranteeing them a lighter sentence if they admit guilt. 

Plea bargains can sometimes be a good deal for a defendant, in cases where the defendant’s prospects of winning at trial are not that great. In cases where a defendant is completely innocent but where the evidence has somehow managed to stack up against them, plea bargains can still be just as good of a deal. This is the unfortunate reality of a system where decisions about guilt and innocence are based on evidence.

It is critical for those accused of sexual assault, murder and other violent crimes to work with an experienced advocate so that they receive the best possibly advocacy in their case. Even though the decision about whether to take a plea bargain is ultimately up to the defendant, such a decision should never be made without fully weighing alternative options. 

Source: New York Times, “Study Puts Exonerations at Record Level in U.S.,” Timothy Williams, February 4, 2014. 

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