innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 6 of Series
“Let’s Make a Deal”
Justice System Provokes
‘Guilty Lies’


By Bill Moushey and Elizabeth Perry
Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Nancy Erwin admitted conspiring with her alcoholic, suicidal husband in the shooting of an Indiana County school secretary in 2002 over her dismissal as a math teacher because a lawyer convinced her it was the only way to avoid a life behind bars..

Now she says it was a lie.

“I was threatened, blackmailed, coerced and harassed into taking my plea,” said Mrs. Erwin. “I have hated myself since I signed my life away to a felony, a crime I never committed,” she said in a letter from the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs.

Hosea Davis’s claims of innocence in a murder as he was serving a 20-40 year sentence fell on deaf ears until he won a new trial when the only witness against him admitted she lied.

After almost three years behind bars and months of negotiations to avoid a second trial he also pleaded guilty in exchange for a 4-8 year term, making him eligible for parole in one year, even though he still professes his innocence.

“I was thinking about going home, doing what I’ve got to do to get home,” he said.

The cases of Mrs. Erwin and Mr. Davis are metaphors for a phenomenon that puts an exclamation mark on a “Let’s Make A Deal” justice system built to extract as many plea bargains as possible from defendants – even if they are sometimes innocent -- to avoid costly trials and to clear court dockets.

While Mrs. Erwin and Mr. Davis claim innocence even though they pleaded to reduced charges, they were hit with a double-whammy when they came up for parole. In Pennsylvania, parole authorities will not release anyone before their maximum sentence date unless they accept full responsibility for their crimes.

In Mrs. Erwin’s case, that tacked two more years on her conspiracy conviction. Mr. Davis, who thought he would walk free after one more year behind bars, is now resigned to spending eight years in prison despite a growing pile of evidence suggesting he’s innocent.

“I don’t know how to show remorse for something I didn’t do. I don’t know how to do it,” he said during an interview at the State Correctional Institution at Albion recently.


Pervasive Pleas

There is no doubt that court systems in Pennsylvania and elsewhere could not function without plea bargains. The shear number of charges filed in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere would cause court dockets to be clogged if even half of those charged demanded trials.

Claire Capristo, Deputy Court Administrator of Allegheny County, said half of the 19,000 cases held for court in 2004 were resolved through pleas, not including the nearly five thousand resolved before hearings.

Al Alshuler, Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Chicago, says across the country, 97 per cent of convictions result from pleas.

“Personal and public interests lead prosecutors to bargain,” Mr. Alshuler said, explaining some prosecutors have weak cases they want to resolve while others cut deals to consolidate multi-count charges or to reduce the shear volume.

According to George Fisher, a former prosecutor now a law professor at Stanford University, these efforts to increase efficiency also benefit defendants who avoid facing unpredictable judges and juries and longer sentences that come after trials.

As for the impact of the rules calling for inmates to take responsibility for their crimes on rising prison populations, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole says it does not track the number of inmates denied parole for refusing to accept responsibility. Its 2005 annual report said 68 percent of those paroled were released at their minimum sentence.

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