Guilty of “innocent”

accuses-affirment-avoir-manque-moyensAbout one in six accused has already pleaded guilty to a charge for which he was innocent yet – or at least claimed to be – due to sustained pressures, including those carried out by his own lawyer.

This is the astonishing conclusion reached Professor in Criminology at the University of Montreal (UdeM) Chloe Leclerc, which presents the results of its recent research at the annual conference of the Quebec Society of Criminology, held these days in Quebec.

“In my opinion, this is very worrying. Our judicial system should not let this go, after all, is the basis of our system: the guilty plea must be free of pressure, made freely and voluntarily, “says the researcher, who conducted this study with a doctoral candidate in criminology at UdeM, Elsa Euvrard.

Although 90% of cases are settled by a guilty plea, which avoids the same time a trial, very few researchers have focused on the issue of negotiations between the prosecution and defense surrounding the famous recognition – that Anglophones call “plea bargaining”. In Quebec, the latest research on the subject dates back to 25 years.

Disturbing practice

The researchers interviewed and sixty accused and a dozen defense lawyers on this “common practice, but unknown and controversial,” says Ms. Leclerc. Of these, 17% responded that they had already pleaded guilty to one or more charges for which they considered themselves innocent. In any case, their lawyer knew.

These negotiations take place outside the courtroom, without the presence of the accused and the judge, too often “in a hurry on the corner of a table,” even on the day the trial should commence, explains the researcher.

Although a minority, these defendants who claim to have been subjected to pressure to plead guilty often have one thing in common: they found their little lawyer devoted to their cause, when they did not outright felt cheated hide information. Many of them did not understand the impact that would have a criminal record for them, while their lawyers put emphasis only on the lenient sentence.

Some told pleading guilty to get out of jail more quickly, since they were in custody since their arrest. Their lawyer has negotiated a lenient sentence at the expense of their innocence when they should have spent months or years in prison before being acquitted possibly following a trial, continues Ms. Leclerc.

Other defendants said they lacked resources to pay “a good lawyer” for a trial. They chose to end their cause, rather than fight with unequal weapons in court.

Another practice marginal, but equally disturbing, according to the researcher: the accused told him to have been asking for money “under the table” by their lawyer to increase their chances of winning their case, claiming duty bribe a judge, a witness or the prosecutor. These same lawyers rely on the fact that they are not paid enough when they accept a legal aid mandate.

“I have not investigated these allegations of corruption. It is possible that this is a way found by the defense lawyers to increase their income, just, but it is worrying, “said the professor in criminology.

Lawyers overwhelmed

Among the defense lawyers interviewed by the researchers, some have criticized the practice “volume” of colleagues who take so many customers they do not have time for trial. This increases the pressure on customers – often unaware that their lawyer is overwhelmed – to plead guilty, according to the study.

In most negotiations for recognition, “all is well” wishes to qualify Ms. Leclerc. But a single case of innocent accused who suffers pressure to plead guilty is one case too many, she insists.

Criminology professor concludes that the accused benefit from being better informed about their rights and the obligations of their lawyer. For example, neutral resources could organize information sessions for defendants in custody, suggests Ms. Leclerc.

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