March 01, 2016

From the Bench: End Factually Baseless Plea Bargains

Factually baseless plea agreements are an affront to the very principle our justice system was designed to promote: the pursuit of truth and justice.

Hon. Michael P. Donnelly

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Think about your favorite Hollywood film that focuses on the U.S. legal system. Now, think about that film’s climactic scene. The common thread running through nearly every great movie about our adversarial system is our core belief that it centers on finding the truth behind disputed facts so that justice may prevail. That is what makes the surgical precision of Tom Cruise’s cross-examination of Jack Nicholson—which at its crescendo reveals who ordered the Code Red—so powerful in my favorite film, A Few Good Men.

In reality, the hard-working attorneys who practice in our country’s criminal justice system understand that most criminal cases aren’t resolved in dramatic courtroom confrontations but rather through negotiated plea agreements. These contracts are supposed to be forged after the prosecutor and defense counsel have zealously represented their clients’ interests and assessed the evidence forming the basis of the allegations.

While not exactly fodder for riveting screenplays, the requirement that such negotiated agreements reflect some level of truth about what actually occurred is vital to the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system. And public confidence is the lifeblood of that system—a belief that any dispute will be resolved in a fair, transparent, and efficient manner consistent with the principles of truth and justice.

After 12 years on the bench, I remain in awe of the design of our adversarial process. I firmly believe that when all parties are doing their jobs correctly and a detailed and accurate record is maintained, the law’s inherent procedural checks and balances and substantive protections will produce a just result. Justice comes in many forms: the guilty being held accountable and punished accordingly, consistent with the goal of public safety; defendants acquitted if the evidence fails to meet the high standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a standard that protects us all from a government empowered to strip away our freedoms; and the wrongfully accused, the actually innocent who are exonerated by “not guilty” verdicts. In my years presiding over thousands of felony cases, I’ve seen them all.

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