If you have been falsely accused of committing a crime, you can expect to be offered a plea bargain at some point. Michelle Gesse tells you what you need to know about plea bargains as you face this difficult decision.
(Victor Valley)–—Imagine that you’re facing the most brutal challenge of your life. It’s damaging your peace of mind, your relationships, your productivity, your finances, and even your physical health, with no end in sight. Then, you’re told that you can make the ordeal end. All you have to do is tell one little lie…albeit a lie that goes against your core values, and that may haunt you for the rest of your life. Would you do it?
This is exactly the dilemma that many Americans face when they’re falsely accused of committing a crime. Plunged into the confusing and frightening maze that is the United States criminal justice system, these individuals are often pressured to admit their “guilt” and accept a plea bargain.
“At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why an innocent person would accept a plea bargain for a crime he or she didn’t commit,” comments Michelle Gesse, author of Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Johnson Books, March 2012, ISBN: 978-1-55566-450-3, $17.95, www.michellegesse.com). “But the unfortunate truth is, the criminal justice system doesn’t always resemble what you see on TV. In practice, you are not treated as though you’re innocent until proven guilty, and a very heavy burden—emotional, financial, and otherwise—is placed on the accused. Very quickly, seemingly black-and-white decisions like whether or not to accept a plea bargain become less clear cut.”
Gesse speaks from experience. On April 5, 2009, a dinner party guest falsely accused her husband, Steven, of threatening him with a gun. In her book, Gesse chronicles the compelling story of what happened from that night to Steven’s acquittal seven months later. Told through Michelle’s eyes, it reveals the price of proving one’s innocence (in the Gesses’ case, a small fortune), the truth about plea bargains, how the accused are treated like criminals by the criminal justice system and the media, and much more.
“I now believe that there are many innocent people who have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit because they didn’t know how to navigate the justice system, weren’t given good advice, and were pressured into accepting a plea bargain—or independently decided that accepting one was their best option,” Gesse comments.
While it’s Gesse’s fervent hope that you or a loved one are never falsely accused of a crime, she’s adamant that it’s crucial to be prepared for the possibility. Here, she shares six things you should take into account when thinking about plea bargains:
Know what a plea bargain is. It’s likely you’ve heard of a plea bargain before, but have you ever stopped to consider what it really means? In essence, you—the accused—admit that you are guilty in return for a reduced sentence. You don’t have to go through the ordeal of a trial, but you will receive a sentence determined by a judge. (In some cases, the severity of the sentence comes as a nasty surprise to individuals who have been led to believe something else entirely before accepting the plea bargain!)
“If you’ve been accused of a crime (whether you are innocent or not), you can expect to be offered a plea bargain at some point,” Gesse says. “Steven was offered a plea bargain, but we had no indication of what the sentence might be if he accepted. It could have involved some jail time, monitored probation, and community service. Plea bargains may also include conditions like a requirement to undergo regular alcohol testing, or limits on your travel. Also, know that accepting a plea bargain means that you will have a criminal record. If you have pleaded guilty to a felony, you will have to live your life with all of the limitations that any convicted felon faces.”
Understand how the system works. The criminal justice system in the United States is a “flow system.” In other words, due to the high volume of cases it must deal with, the system’s goal is to dispose of as many cases as quickly as possible. That’s where negotiating plea bargains comes in—they’re the quickest and least expensive way for the system and for you to end the process.
“From the perspective of the ‘system,’ plea bargains have a lot of advantages: They don’t tie up the judicial system with a trial, they allow the DA’s office to move on to another case, they enhance the prosecutor’s conviction rate, and they don’t require the additional services of an appointed public defender if the accused needs one,” Gesse explains. “And most often, the plea bargain strategy works. Consider the fact that 90 percent of all individuals accused of a felony accept a plea bargain, and only about 5 percent of felony convictions result from a jury trial.”
Expect pressure to accept. If you’re adamant about your innocence after being falsely accused of a crime, you’d expect the people in your life to urge you to fight a conviction, right? Actually, warns Gesse, just the opposite might occur.
“Don’t underestimate the pressure put on an innocent person to accept a plea bargain, and definitely don’t expect universal support if you’re set on going to trial,” she comments. “Family and friends will likely encourage you to accept the plea bargain ‘to end the nightmare,’ often without knowing the real ramifications of this decision.”
Consider the pros of accepting a plea bargain… Not only is a plea bargain advantageous for the judicial system, accepting one can also be tempting to someone facing months of trials and legal fees. Consider this: If you are paying for your own defense, accepting a plea bargain effectively ends the outflow of cash. It ends the stress of the upcoming trial and alleviates the worry of an unknown verdict and outcome.
“Many falsely accused individuals may put a higher priority on ending the suffering the accusation is causing their family than on proving their innocence,” Gesse points out. “I’ll admit—there were several points during Steven’s ordeal when I simply wanted the nightmare to be over. I was tired, scared, and overwhelmed, and putting an end to everything seemed very attractive. But I knew that while Steven and I were facing this challenge together, whether or not to accept a plea bargain was his decision to make.”
…and the cons. Most obviously, accepting a plea bargain means “admitting” guilt to a crime you didn’t commit. For many individuals, such a moral compromise might be difficult, if not impossible, to live with. Gesse recalls her husband commenting that taking a plea bargain would eat away at him day and night, possibly even shortening his life.
“Another ‘con’ to take into account is that despite the promises that are made as part of the bargain, nothing is guaranteed,” Gesse asserts. “An accused person may have been assured that by accepting the plea bargain he will spend little to no time in jail. He may also believe that the onerous and time-consuming meetings with counselors or judges will end. You need to be aware, however, that there are many individuals who accepted a plea bargain with such assurances and then received long prison terms for a crime they did not commit. Their nightmare didn’t end—it got worse.”
Do what’s right for you. While there are clear-cut pros and cons to accepting a plea bargain, there is no “right” answer concerning the best course of action. Every innocent person accused of a felony has to make the decision to go to trial or accept a plea bargain for themselves. Make sure you’re well informed and understand the ramifications of each possible decision to the best of your ability. Then do what’s best for you and your family.
“Most likely, one of the biggest decisions you’ll face is whether to go to trial or accept a plea bargain,” Gesse confirms. “Going to trial was the right decision for me and my husband, but it may not be the right decision for you. If, for instance, your family doesn’t have the time, money, or emotional stamina to go through the lengthy and expensive process, there’s no shame in taking another route as long as you all agree on it. Neither should the acceptance of a plea bargain be taken as a sign of guilt by your close friends and family. It is what it is—a chance to draw the process to a conclusion.”
“I sincerely hope that you never have to decide whether or not to accept a plea bargain for a crime you didn’t commit,” Gesse concludes. “But if you do, the best advice I can give you is to be as informed as possible, and to not make any emotional or rash decisions. Take the time you need to fully understand your options. And be sure to do what’s best and healthiest for you—not anyone else.”