Rodney Roberts was arrested and taken to a Newark, New Jersey, precinct in 1996 for assault following a dispute with a friend. A few days later, he was charged with kidnapping and sexual assault; he pleaded guilty to kidnapping that July. In 2014, Roberts went free—exonerated by DNA evidence after spending nearly 18 years in prison.
Roberts’ story is far from unique. In the U.S. judicial system, 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains, an agreement in a criminal case in which the defendant pleads guilty to a specific charge in return for some concessions from the prosecutor. Like Roberts, many of those people are eventually found innocent: The National Registry of Exonerations has seen the annual number of exonerated more than double since the year 2011. As of January 2016, the United States averaged nearly three exonerations a week. This problem disproportionately affects people of color, who made up more than two-thirds of those exonerated in homicide cases in 2015.
There are numerous reasons for an innocent individual to plead guilty. In exchange, they often have their alleged crime demoted to a lesser offense, which means less potential time in prison and—more importantly—bypassing the possibility of facing the death penalty if tried in court. Roberts, for example, says he was given a choice by his public defender: Plead guilty without a trial and get a shorter sentence, or get life without parole if found guilty in court.
“Lots of people take guilty pleas, not because they feel they’re guilty of the crime they’re being accused of, but because they do a calculation of how much they want to risk,” said Ekow N. Yankah, professor of criminal procedures at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, in a phone interview with Rewire.
Yankah also noted that “under conditions of fear, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, people confess to crimes they didn’t commit.”
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In recent years, popular culture has helped pay a bigger role in raising public awareness of innocent people who have taken guilty pleas. But there are still large portions of the nation that are either not aware of the guilty plea problem or outright deny it. Most notable is President Donald Trump, who in 1989 placed full-page ads in four daily newspapers in New York City calling for the return of the death penalty after five Black and Latino teenagers were charged with assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. Fourteen years later, when the five individuals were exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession from serial killer Matias Reyes, Trump denied the evidence, insisting upon the “Central Park Five’s” guilt and referencing the false confessions they made.
There are many reasons why people might deny that innocent people are accepting guilty pleas, says Yankah. “Some people either don’t want to think about it,” he said. Some, he suggested, get satisfaction from notions that certain people deserve jail time regardless of the specific circumstances. “Or maybe they’re scared to think that we have a criminal justice system that gets it wrong,” he continued.
In this climate, Yankah emphasized the importance of eliciting empathy: “If America stood up and said ‘I can imagine what it’d be like if I was arrested for a crime I didn’t commit’ that could impact a lot of people.”
To that end, in late January, the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization committed to exonerating wrongly convicted individuals through use of DNA evidence, launched #GuiltyPleaProblem, a campaign to raise awareness and explain the rationale that may lead innocent people to accept guilty plea bargains. Over the course of six weeks, the project will release a once-weekly video featuring an exonerated individual. Roberts is one such person.
Project organizers say that the videos are only the beginning of a larger movement on this issue. “The first step in bringing about reform is making people aware of it,” Paul Cates, communications director of the Innocence Project, said in a phone interview with Rewire. “This is sort of the launch roll-out to get people to watch the videos. Ultimately we’re going to continue to grow it.”
Other advocates, however, say mere awareness isn’t enough. Paul Wright, the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Legal Defense Fund and the editor of Prison Legal News, told Rewire that those seeking to address the problem should confront the justice system as a whole—including the lack of quality public defenders or other help available for the accused, especially low-income defendants.
“Lack of adequate defense is the real problem,” Wright said. “If you’re innocent it doesn’t mean much; the cornerstones of the problems that afflict our justice system [are] at the trial level.” In his view, defendants often plead guilty either because they’re facing hefty prison sentences or because they believe their lawyers will not adequately defend them. He also pointed out that the prosecutorial and judicial system often works against those who take their cases to trial.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the research and advocacy organization the Sentencing Project, said in a phone interview that just as there was no single reason that led to mass incarceration, there will be no single solution to fix it. Porter emphasized that “raising awareness around guilty pleas and the pressure to plead given the sentence structure at the federal end within states is important.” In addition, she said, “advocates are working on a range of strategies and interventions in the short term to reduce the number of prison admissions and the length of each sentencing.” She, too, noted the importance of quality defense.
More than just eliciting empathy, the Guilty Plea Problem campaign could also shed light on the help still needed by exonerated individuals. Many suffer after being released from varying degrees of psychological depression and trauma, in addition to the difficulties of finding housing and reconnecting with family and children. The barrier they face most often is finding employment: Those who disclose prior convictions or whose convictions appear on a background check are often denied work, even after their innocence is explained.
Roberts, for his part, says he has received no financial help from the government of New Jersey for his wrongful conviction. (New Jersey law generally entitles exonerated individuals to state compensation of either double their income prior to incarceration or $20,000 annually, whichever is greater.) Though he sued the state of New Jersey, he says the state claimed that because he provided a guilty confession he was ineligible for compensation. Rewire reached out to Essex County, where Roberts filed his claim against the state. Its representatives declined to comment on his case.
“Even with the DNA evidence, they still fought me from getting the money from the state,” Roberts said.
“My release has been more of a hardship,” he concluded.