In my study of 125 proven false confessions (with Richard Leo), we documented 14 false guilty pleas, approximately 11% of the sample. There were two types: 1) a defendant is convinced that he will get a harsh sentence (often the death penalty) if he goes to trial but a more lenient sentence if he takes the plea so he will enter a plea (often an Alford plea which allows him to maintain his innocence and still challenge issues relating to his confession on appeal); 2) the defendant's conviction has been reversed, usually based on evidence that appears to exonerate him like DNA evidence, but is told that if he persists in his claim of innocence, the State will take him to trial and he could get convicted a second time. Sometimes, the state threatens to appeal the reversal, a decision which will keep the defendant in jail for at least a year before his case is resolved. In either case, the State offers the defendant a deal -- plead guilty to the same crime or a lesser crime in exchange for time-served. It is a deal that few defendants can resist. Their faith having been shaken once, they are not willing to place their faith in the system a second time. The same kind of cost-benefit analysis that an innocent defendant is asked to make during an interrogation is at play in the false guilty plea context, except the promises of leniency and threats of harm are clearer and out in the open.
Last week (11/2) , in an article reported by H.G. Reza of the LA TIMES, James Ochoa was exonerated by DNA evidence in a carjacking case, the first such DNA exoneration in a non-rape or murder case. At the time of trial, prosecutors knew that DNA found on the sweatband of a cap found in the stolen car was not Ochoa's. They also knew that his fingerprints did not match those found on the car. But two eyewitnesses identified him so they took the case to trial. Three days into the trial, Ochoa was offered a plea deal. Plead guilty and you'll get out in two years. The deal was too tempting, especially given that the judge told Ochoa, who had several priors, that if he was convicted, he would go away for life. Over his attorney's advice, Ochoa pled guilty. The twenty year old spent 10 months in prison when the very same DNA that prosecutors ignored, exonerated him. The DNA at the crime scene was linked to another man, Jaymes T. McCollum, was in L.A. County jail on carjacking charges.
Should prosecutors have proceeded to trial knowing the DNA did not match Ochoa's? They knew that the victim had described the gunman as wearing the clothing found in the car and that he was sweating profusely. They also knew that their eyewitness i.d.'s were shaky, one of which was based on a suggestive photo array followed by a suggestive showup. Perhaps there should be a presumption against proceeding with a case when DNA presumed to be from a suspect does not match the suspect. And what about the trial court judge? Should he have been more concerned about the fact that the DNA did not match?
How many other innocents who pled guilty could be exonerated by DNA evidence? This number is unknowable but in light of the Ochoa case and other like it (ironically, Chris Ochoa of Austin, Texas is perhaps the most infamous false confession/DNA exoneration case in the annals of exonerations; he not only falsely confessed to a murder and rape, he testifed against his close friend who was also convicted to avoid a death sentence), no courts should exclude defendants who have pled guilty from obtaining post-conviction DNA evidence.