In the southern part of Alabama, just outside of Mobile, a young man was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of first-degree rape and sodomy. This was after he entered a blind plea deal on charges that carried a minimum mandatory of 20 years in prison.
Out Birmingham sex crimes defense lawyers know that agreeing to a blind plea – that is, one where the prosecution offers you nothing in return – is one of the worst moves you can make. Not only are you denying yourself the right to a trial by jury, a blind plea means you are not ensured any benefit whatsoever by giving up that right.
And in fact, prosecutors expect that they will have to do one or the other. Plea deals are not uncommon, but some are questioning if prosecutors are using their authority in this realm to abuse their power. Specifically under fire is the routine practice of prosecutors “stacking” the charges. That is, prosecutors will throw every possible applicable (and sometimes not applicable) charge into the ring, hoping a few will stick or they will have enough leverage with which to strong-arm a guilty plea on at least the lesser charges.
This tactic has been challenged in the past, but it has been given a fresh look in the wake of the suicide of Aaron Swartz, young computer activist (co-creator of Reddit and RSS) who had been facing federal charges carrying up to 35 years in prison for illegally downloading millions of pages of academic material.
Obviously, this is not a sex crime and the outrage in the case stemmed from the fact that someone not accused of actually hurting anyone would be facing so serious a penalty. But the way these prosecutors approached the case is similar to what we often see at the state level, and commonly for those charged with sex offenses.
Prosecutors don’t expect that you’ll actually go to trial to defend yourself – in fact, only five percent of criminal cases actually make it to trial. (In federal cases, it’s even less – about 3 percent.) They are expecting that by using the threat of decades behind bars, you will feel you have no choice but to plead guilty to the lesser charge and take “just” a few years instead.
This is a win-win for prosecutors – and a lose-lose for you. Prosecutors know that trial is time-consuming and expensive. If they had to see each criminal case through to trial, it would take years for cases to be resolved. Plea deals avoid that, while at the same time giving prosecutors a chance to still get a “win” under their belts – which can be an important asset when seeking some form of career advancement, whether that be a promotion or public office.
Defendants, on the other hand, lose. They don’t have the chance to defend themselves point-by-point and they may be forced to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the risk of trial on charges that carry decades behind bars.
Of course, this is not to say a plea deal is always necessarily a bad thing, especially if the evidence against you is fairly substantial. But your defense attorney should not shy away from fighting to have many of those charges dropped or significantly reduced. And if it comes to a point where trial makes the best sense, he or she should not be afraid to push forward in order to obtain the best possible outcome for you.