In today's Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS) it was reported that two judges have been designated to do nothing but accept guilty pleas from accused "in order to reduce the backlog" and reduce "inmate crowding". http://www.clarionledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040621/NEWS01/406210362/1002
I contacted the reporter with a link to this web site and a request to please report the truth about this guilty-plea racket.
Mary Jo Brooks
Frontline has done, as usual, an excellent job of exposing another very disturbing reality behind the myth: this time of the American justice system. I am pleased to read the many letters from viewers expressing sympathy for the individuals highlighted in your show, and varying degrees of outrage at the "system" and some of the individuals who facilitate it.
I work as a court clerk in a rural northern California county, in the family law branch of the court. Even in that court, I see what appear to be grevious miscarriages of justice. I believe that if you look squarely at the cumulative injustice - in family court, traffic court, child support, civil and criminal courts - you cannot avoid confronting the basic dysfunction of our justice system. Its bad enough that it exists to the degree it does, but the web of woes that arises from it is exponentially worse. There IS an elephant in our living room.
Thanks Frontline for the excellent reporting on "The Plea." The first duty of a society is justice, but our justice system is clearly full of injustices.
I'm disturbed that plea bargaining is constitutional. Should it be? Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states, "The President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment...of Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes...."
Prosecutorial abuse of power (or crime) is evident in the word "bribery." As U.S. civil officers, prosecutors offer a "bribe" that is meant to induce, influence, and promise a defendant a lesser sentence. The loss of one's freedom is a very strong inducement and certainly influences a defendant's judgment to accept a "bribe" when made under threats of a plea.
Since the courts are allowing plea bargains, then no defendants should ever face a greater sentence if they choose to go to trial. Otherwise, the plea is simply bribery!
Sun City West, AZ
As a practicing legal aid attorney, I want to thank you for your documentary on plea bargains. I do have three things to add:
1) In Oakland County, Michigan, there is no public defender's office. Attorneys are appointed from the private bar. It is well known that judges will stop giving appointments to attorneys who insist upon jury trials or evidentiary hearings for their clients. In other words, demand your client's rights = lose your appointments and your income. I mean, why would the judge want to hear a trial when s/he could be on the golf course? (Oh I'm sorry; that sounded cynical)
2) You need to do a follow up on the gross incompetence of many prosecutors. In the Detroit and Ann Arbor metro areas, many (read: most) of the prosecutors got their jobs because their parents are legislators, judges, made huge contributions to the campaign, etc. Look at the last names on the rosters and prepare to see nepotism at its ugliest. Not to say they aren't competent, but many of them simply are not qualified for the job. Further, many of them are only in that office until they can run for office and/or be appointed to a judicial seat. Again, not to say that they don't do a good job, but it is terrifying to see what they will do to get their names in the newspaper and to further their careers (Oh I'm sorry. I'm being cynical again!)
3) You may want to not use law professors as "experts" in the future. Most of them didn't learn much during the day and half that they actually practiced law. I went to a top tier law school and had people who had no idea how to write a motion to a trial court--or even what a trial court was! Given their removal from real life, I do not think they are credible. (Yes, I'm rather cynical about this, aren't I?!)
All in all, you did a wonderful job, as usual. Thank you for this wonderful documentary.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
There is something seriously wrong with a system that rewards an individual with a lesser sentence for admitting to a crime they did not commit.
Thank you for bringing these stories to the attention of the general public. After watching The Plea I am filled with a sence of urgency, and a desperate need to do something for the individuals who have been misstreated by our justice system.
Who can we write/e-mail/call/harass inorder for Charles Gampero to be given the parole he greatly deserves?
FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Regarding the Charles Gampero, Jr. case, the viewer can write to both:
Chairman of the Board of Parole
NY State Division of Parole
97 Central Avenue
Albany, NY 12206
Honorable Joseph A. Silverman
New York State Supreme Court, Kings County
360 Adams Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
As a career public defender, I have stood by clients whom I believe to be innocent as they pled guilty on my advice. I have gone to trial with clients I knew to be innocent and whose innocence was established at trial, yet the jury found them guilty. I have dealt with judges who do not recognize the coercive nature of the system, with police officers who are violent and who lie and who are not held accountable, and with prosecutors who are so influenced by their own issues they cannot recognize the ambiguities in their evidence or let go of a case once their evidence is shown to be faulty. And I too feel the hopelessness of facing the system yet one more day, trying to help a client who faces a system without justice. Thank you for "The Plea".
Suggested topic for a future program might be the increasing concentration of power in the prosecutor's office. District Attorneys have much more power than a judge. They work with the police, screen cases, and have such widespread charging discretion that the charge can determine sentences.
Prosecutors have great credibility with judges; any defense attorney knows when s/he walks into a courtroom, s/he faces two powerful figures who are against his/her client - the DA and the judge. In the current political climate, the departments of law can persuade legislators to pass just about any law that increases sentences and gives more discretion to the prosecutors. Give me a decent prosecutor over a decent judge any day of the week. The executive branch, in criminal law at least,is therefore becoming yet more powerful, through the prosecutors' offices, with resultant decrease in power in the courts.
As a convicted felon I have probably faced a lot of the barriers of trying to reenter society. My offense took place 9yrs. and 3mos. ago. When job applications ask, Ever been convicted?, I still struggel with whether or not to check yes.
The 1st yr. of my probation my income was $1,234.00; even with my promotion. Until I saw, The Plea, I thought I had gotten a raw deal; I realize now my situation could have been worse.
I especially benefited from the links on the website. They provided the most information I've ever found on the subject of expungement. This topic was difficult to research because I really didn't know where to start or what questions to ask. Thanks FrontLine - you've helped me open a door that was sealed over 9yrs ago.
I also was so touched by the story of Erma Stewart and am sending a check to her for $500. tonite. I urge everyone who reads this to also contribute to the dear women who has had such a very hard time in this life. I hope someone gets in touch with Oprah Winfry who can really help this women get her life back on track...
Calistoga, california 94515
FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Contact information on each of the people who were profiled in "The Plea" can be found after clicking on their name/picture on the homepage of this web site.
I am a defense attorney.
I have watched my clientsface so many dire allegations they have clearly NOT commit, but when the DA tells them they can accept a conviction, do a year and not risk 3, or 6, or 8... it is a real risk benefit consideration. Trial is an unknown.
The first juror I spoke to after a 10/2 hung jury in a murder case told me "Two jurors wanted to convict him because he is left handed and they both believe left handed people are intrinsicly evil." Now, do you want your life in the hands of THOSE kind of people?
The last trial I began, the judge made evidentiary rulings keeping out ALL of my evidence about the deceitfulness of the prosecution's primary witness. The fourth motion of the prosecutor (regarding evidence) he granted was over the top, clearly JUST to make sure my clients would plead guilty. I called my partner and began to wail my tale of woe ... and he said, "Wait. I am reading a transcript for a habeas petition right now -- same judge -- same prosecutor -- and she made the EXACT same request but in that trial the judge blasted her and provided the controlling authority to DENY her request.
Now do you understand why people PLEAD?
Laguna Beach, California
I'm perplexed at the lack of support for plea bargaining. Sure- there are abuses, but the vast majority of pleas provide certainty and closure for victims, save countless tax-payer dollars, and reward those rare criminals who are prepared to take responsibility.
Gary Ridgeway just pled guilty to the murders of 48 women. In return, the King County Prosecutor chose not to seek the death penalty. Tax payers saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, the families of 48 murdered women will now have some semblance of peace and Ridgeway will live.
Will the opponents of the process now say he just should have been tried and put to death, or will they see the hypocisy in that position?
I want to thank you for developing this program and bringing the situation to the attention of the public. It's this kind of national exposure that acts as a catalyst for systemic change, which pretty much anyone viewing the show would concede is needed. Even if it's only a small percentage (< 1%?) of innocent, vulnerable people who are treated unfairly, that's still too high. What if <1% of surgeries failed in a similar way? It's just too frequent.
Posters, I felt like I had to help Erma financially, and I understand Frontline helped her be able to recieve it. You can send checks to Regina's address, and anything else you can do to get the word out will be appreciated.
I was able to watch "The Plea" when it aired. I was also able to be a part of the live chat with Ofra Bikel the next day.
For those people to think that injustices don't happen in this country, boy, are you wrong!
As I explained to Ms. Bikel, I have two friends, Bob Gondor & Randy Resh that have been falsely convicted of murder.
Bob Gondor was given a choice: a plea bargain. Write down three words, "I was there" and have the sentence reduced to 6 mos. He refused and was given a sentence 21 to 50 yrs.
They have been in prison for the past 14 yrs. Two years ago their convictions were vacated & they were ordered new trials. We are now waiting on the appellate court to affirm this.
Visit their website for more information. www.freebobandrandy.com
Unless this happens to you or someone you know, no one believes that there are corrupt prosecutors and investigators in their community.
This is an election year. I would strongly encourage all voters to really look into the background of the elected officials running for office. It comes down to the well-being of your family, friends and community.
FRONTLINE is to be commended for bringing this documentary to the public; it should be required viewing for every American because obviously, any one of us could suddenly be thrust into the plea dilemma.
...and by the way, what kind of credentials do people on Parole Boards have and need?
san francisco, ca
So many people are writing here to express their outrage, I wonder if they will do the same by writing to their state and federal legislators, insist that the courts be funded properly so that the tragic miscarriage of justice documented by this program does not happen.
St. Paul, Minnesota
As long as prosecutors care about winning and less about finding out the truth (or even trying to suppress the truth in order to avoid losing!) and as long as poor, marginal people do not have access to proper, adequate defense, there will continue to be many innocents wrongfully convicted.
But the sad truth is that this will not change. The reason is that the American people are much much more disturbed at the prospect of a person who might be guilty, even if the evidence is flimsy or non-existent, being set free than the reverse situation. Faced with this choice, the US Justice system will continue to try to convict as many as people as possible to avoid letting some guilty people go free even if some innocents, who are poor and marginal have to be wrongly convicted.
It is really the American people's attitude that is to blame.
Thank you again for a fine presentation - provocative and timely (timely for many years, unfortunately). Also for the wealth of related material at the web site.
As a former teacher of youth in a correctional institution in Maine for 29 years, my slant on this aspect of adversarial mis-justice was that the young offenders who were incarcerated as a result of "bargains" got a very distorted sense of what they had done to victims and how it had affected them as well as the youngsters' families and their very selves. It is terrible civics that we are perpetrating on communities.
Restorative justice models such as New Zealand's offer some hope for a better future of assessing, fixing and preventing harm and empowering communities to rebuild relationships.
Cape Elizabeth, Maine