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The Senseless Legal Precedent That Enables Wrongful Convictions

A federal appeals court has ruled that prosecutors can withhold evidence that may prove defendants innocent before they plead guilty.

John Moore/Getty Images

George Alvarez spent four years in a Texas prison because a jail guard lied. The guard told prosecutors that the 17-year-old teenager had grabbed him by the throat while being transferred to another cell in a Brownsville detention center in 2005. Alvarez, a special-education student in the ninth grade at the time, pleaded guilty to assaulting a peace officer in exchange for a suspended eight-year prison sentence—so long as he completed a substance-treatment program. He did not, and began serving the eight-year term.

Halfway through his sentence, video footage came to light that prosecutors had never gathered from police officers, and thus never shown to the grand jury. The footage showed no such attack. Instead, the guard could be seen placing Alvarez in a choke hold and eventually a head lock while the young man flailed beneath him. His hands and arms were pinned down, nowhere near the guard’s throat. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found Alvarez to be “actually innocent” of the charges and vacated his conviction in 2010.

Alvarez then did what any citizen whose rights are violated can do: He sued the city of Brownsville, citing Supreme Court rulings that require the government to turn over exculpatory evidence in their possession to the defendant. This week, however, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out his lawsuit, siding with the city’s defense that it wasn’t legally liable for the guard’s actions. But the judges also rejected Alvarez’s constitutional argument. Yes, the court said, prosecutors have to turn over evidence that may prove a defendant’s innocence for a criminal trial. But that constitutional right doesn’t apply when the defendant agrees to a plea bargain, they concluded.

How can that be? After all, plea bargaining is not some ancillary feature to the criminal-justice system. In many ways, it is the modern criminal-justice system. More than 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements in the state and federal systems. Jury trials, for all their ubiquity in American films and television shows, are now the exception instead of the rule. The result is a bureaucratized method of dispensing punishment, one that sometimes evades key protections for Americans’ constitutional rights.

Prosecutors are obligated under what’s known as the Brady rule to disclose any evidence in the government’s possession that may benefit a defendant’s case. The rule takes its name from the landmark 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, where the Supreme Court held that withholding exculpatory evidence violated a defendant’s right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. But the lower courts are divided on whether that also applies to the plea-bargaining process. The Supreme Court itself has never ruled on the matter.

Fifth Circuit Chief Judge Carl Stewart wrote in his thirteen-judge majority opinion that their court was bound by its own precedents, which narrowly interpret the Supreme Court’s rulings on the matter. “In sum, case law from the Supreme Court, this circuit, and other circuits does not affirmatively establish that a constitutional violation occurs when Brady material is not shared during the plea bargaining process,” he wrote. “The en banc court will not disturb this circuit’s settled precedent and abstains from expanding the Brady right to the pretrial plea bargaining context for Alvarez.”

The four dissenting judges noted that, under that precedent, Alvarez likely would have served his entire eight-year sentence had he been convicted of a federal crime in the Fifth Circuit’s jurisdiction instead of a state crime. “That is because we are the only federal court of appeals that has held that a defendant who pleads guilty is not entitled to evidence that might exonerate him,” Judge Gregg Costa wrote in his dissent. “Fortunately for Alvarez, and for those who believe that ‘justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly,’ he was convicted of a state offense.” (Texas courts have ruled that the Brady rule does apply in state-level plea-bargaining cases.)

Plea bargaining’s flaws, as used on a massive scale today, are well established. The practice favors defendants with the financial resources to defend themselves at trial and disfavors poorer defendants who must instead rely on the overburdened public-defender system. Like virtually every other aspect of the criminal-justice system, it punishes non-white defendants more harshly than their white counterparts. Plea bargaining also shifts power away from judges and juries and hands it to state, local, and federal prosecutors instead. In doing so, it subverts the structural protections afforded to defendants by the Constitution.

Worst of all, the phenomenon appears to be sending countless defendants to prison who are actually innocent of the crimes for which they plead guilty. Thanks to the coercive power that flows from prosecutorial discretion and mandatory-minimum sentences, defendants may logically conclude that it’s safer to plead to a few years for a crime they didn’t commit than risk decades behind bars. Costa noted in his dissent that a nationwide registry for exonerations includes 73 Americans who had pleaded guilty to serious offenses like murder and manslaughter.

“And more than 10 percent of the 353 Americans whom the Innocence Project has helped exonerate through DNA evidence pleaded guilty,” he wrote. “Scholars believe false guilty pleas are even more common for less serious offenses when the cost-benefit analysis makes a plea that results in a minor sentence enticing.” Though precise numbers may be impossible to obtain, some researchers estimate that between 2 and 8 percent of people with felony convictions may be innocent.

In the worst cases, some of those guilty pleas may have been gained through coercion. A Connecticut court freed Bobby Johnson, who pleaded guilty to murdering a 70-year-old man during a 2006 robbery, after prosecutors acknowledged police misconduct in his case. Officers told him during his lengthy interrogation that he would face the death penalty if he didn’t confess to the crime, but would only receive probation if he did. Johnson, who was diagnosed with an IQ of 69, agreed to confess and received a 38-year prison sentence. Judges in Illinois tossed out cases connected to Jon Burge, the notorious Chicago police commander who oversaw the use of torture to extract false confessions from defendants for two decades.

Though cases like those represent the outer bounds of why innocent defendants may plead guilty, they vividly underscore the importance of skepticism towards the integrity of the plea-bargaining process. The lower courts are divided on whether exculpatory material should be provided during that process, so it’s possible that the Supreme Court could step in and clarify its ruling on the matter. That may not aid Alvarez or other Americans who have already been wrongfully convicted. But it could help those whose years have yet to be stolen.