When Charles Gampero, Jr. was arrested and charged with murder in the second degree in 1994, the 20-year-old insisted he was innocent. While admitting to having hit the victim while trying to break up a fight outside a bowling alley on the night in question, Gampero said the victim was very much alive when he left him.
Given numerous unanswered questions in the case -- including statements by the victim's family, who said the man had been the target of harassment and vandalism by unknown parties in the weeks before his death -- Gampero was convinced that a jury would believe his story and acquit him of the charges.
But a jury would never hear his case. After jury selection had begun, Gampero and his family say the judge pressured the young man to accept a plea bargain that would send him to prison for seven to 21 years.
"[The judge] told me point blank—he said, 'I will give your son 25 to life, so you better take the plea, or if you don't take the plea, he's getting it,'" says Charles Gampero, Sr., whose son is now entering his ninth year in prison. "We took the plea agreement thinking that the judge knew what he was talking about and my son would be home by the time he's 27," Gampero Sr. says. "It didn't work out."
To overworked and understaffed defense lawyers, prosecutors, and jurists, plea bargains are the safety valve that keeps cases moving through our backlogged courts.
"The system would collapse if every case that was filed in the criminal justice system were to be set for trial," says Judge Caprice Cosper of the Harris County Criminal Court in Houston, Texas. "The system would just entirely collapse."
Critics, however, contend that the push to resolve cases through plea bargains jeopardizes the constitutional rights of defendants, who may be pressured to admit their guilt whether they are guilty or not. In Erma Faye Stewart's case, for example, she says her defense attorney encouraged her to accept a plea bargain when she was arrested in a major drug sweep based upon information provided by a police informant who was later deemed not credible. The 30-year-old mother of two steadfastly maintained her innocence, but says her court-appointed defense attorney didn't want to hear it.
"He was, like, pushing me to [plead guilty and] take the probation -- he wasn't on my side at all," says Stewart, who tells FRONTLINE that after spending 25 nights in a crowded jail cell, she decided to follow her attorney's advice. "Even though I wasn't guilty, I was willing to plead guilty because I had to go home to my kids. My son was sick."
After accepting the plea bargain and 10 years' probation, Stewart was freed. What she didn't know was that under the terms of her probation, she would be required to pay a monthly fee to her probation officer. Her felony conviction also meant that the single mother was banned from the federal food stamps program. Within three years of pleading guilty to a crime she says she didn't commit, Erma Faye Stewart had fallen behind in her probation payments and been evicted from her home.
"One reason that a lot of people plead guilty is because they're told they can go home that day, because they will get probation," says Steve Bright, a defense attorney and law professor who serves as director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "What they usually don't take into account is that they are being set up to fail."
Other defendants in "The Plea" describe being pressured by prosecutors and judges into accepting plea bargains that resulted in them spending years behind bars for crimes they say they didn't commit. Those who refuse to cut a deal, insiders say, are often rewarded with extra-harsh prison sentences as a lesson to future defendants.
A case in point: Patsy Kelly Jarrett. In 1973, the 23-year-old North Carolina resident drove to New York with a friend for a summer-long vacation. It was only when the police showed up at her door three years later, Jarrett says, that she learned that sometime during their New York stay, her friend had robbed a gas station and murdered the attendant.
While the evidence against Jarrett's friend was concrete, the only evidence against Jarrett was the statement of an elderly witness who said he saw a car at the time of the crime with someone inside. The man did not know, however, whether the person was a man or a woman.
To avoid a trial, prosecutors offered Jarrett a plea bargain: If she would plead guilty to the robbery, they would drop the murder charge and give her a five- to 15-year prison sentence.
"I told my attorney, 'I can't, I can't do this,'" Jarrett tells FRONTLINE. "And he said, 'Well, my hands are tied. We want to drop the murder charge on you if you'll plead guilty to the robbery.' And I said, 'But I haven't robbed anybody.'"
Convinced that the jury would believe her, Jarrett refused the plea bargain and took her chances with a trial. She was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.
"I believed in the American system of justice," Jarrett says from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where she has spent the past 27 years of her life. "I really believed that, you know, just tell the truth and the judge and jury will hear you and nothing will happen to you. But I was wrong…."
Twelve years into her prison sentence, Jarrett's case was reversed after the prison warden became convinced of her innocence and asked a new defense attorney to take up her case. The state decided to appeal the reversal, but first offered Jarrett another plea bargain: If she would admit to committing the crimes with which she was charged, she would be sentenced to time served and released.
In "The Plea," Jarrett's lawyers describe how they urged her repeatedly to take the plea bargain. She refused. The state won its appeal, and Jarrett's 25 years to life sentence was reinstated.
"It's just morally wrong to say you did something you know in your heart you didn't do," says Jarrett, who will not be eligible for parole until 2005. "I might have walked free physically, but in my spirit and in my soul, I would have had to have lived with that the rest of my life. And I couldn't live with me like that. I can live with me better in here."
Update: In the spring of 2005 Kelly Jarrett had her first parole hearing and was granted parole. She will be released June 13, 2005.