Why the Innocent Are Punished More Harshly Than the Guilty

jail.jpgThe AP reports on a really tragic case of wrongful conviction:

A man who died in prison while serving time for a rape he didn’t commit was cleared Friday by a judge who called the state’s first posthumous DNA exoneration “the saddest case” he’d ever seen. . . .

[Timothy] Cole was convicted of raping a Texas Tech University student in Lubbock in 1985 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died in 1999 at age 39 from asthma complications.

DNA tests in 2008 connected the crime to Jerry Wayne Johnson, who is serving life in prison for separate rapes. Johnson testified in court Friday that he was the rapist in Cole’s case and asked the victim and Cole’s family to forgive him. . . .

The Innocence Project of Texas said Cole’s case was the first posthumous DNA exoneration in state history.

The part of the story that caught my eye was the fact that Cole’s insistence on his innocence is what led to his imprisonment and prevented his release on parole:

Cole and his relatives for years claimed he was innocent, but no one believed them until evidence from the original rape kit was tested for DNA. Cole had refused to plead guilty before trial in exchange for probation, and while in prison, he refused to admit to the crime when it could have earned him release on parole

This case illustrates how our criminal justice system punishes the innocent more harshly than the guilty. This phenomenon occurs because of several rules and practices:

1. The federal sentencing guidelines and sentencing guidelines in many states provide for reductions in sentences for “acceptance of responsibility.” The innocent defendant, who refuses to admit to the crime, will not receive this benefit.

2. An innocent defendant might often refuse to accept a guilty plea deal. When the innocent defendant defends his or her innocence at trial and gets wrongly convicted, that defendant will invariably receive a much higher punishment than that proposed in the plea deal.


3. An innocent defendant, by not admitting to the crime, might hurt his or her chance for an early release from prison.

These factors lead to the rather perverse outcome that defendants who are innocent are punished more harshly than the guilty. The innocent defendant faces a terrible choice — either falsely admit guilt, in exchange for a lighter punishment, or defend his or her innocence but pay dearly if he or she loses. Innocent defendants are probably much more likely to choose the latter strategy. Timothy Cole turned down a plea deal for probation because he didn’t want to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. That’s a decision made on principle, one that an innocent person might very well make but rather unusual for a guilty person to make.

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58 Responses

  1. ohwilleke says:

    The flip side of the plea bargain system is that weak cases often produce vary favorable plea bargin offers. Cole, for example, was offered probation in a plea bargain, despite being accused of being a violent serial rapist who had terrorized Texas Tech for years. Large gaps between offered pleas and sentences upon conviction are warning signs for cases to be concerned about.

    Another problem faced by innocent defendants, particularly in the context of gang or organized crime prosecutions where guilty by association is often inferred, is that innocent defendants are rarely in a position to mitigate their sentences or drive favorable bargains by cooperating to implicate others.

    As an aside, the case Kay Sieverding is referring to is one involving unauthorized practice of law in termination of parenting rights cases, where courts found that she had crossed the line from being a lay supporter of defendants to being a de facto lawyer.

  2. Larry says:

    Emma,

    I like your suggestions about how to protect the innocent. Still, I’m a little mystified by your remark that “we need to make convicting the innocent the exception rather than the norm.”

    Convicting the innocent already IS the exception rather than the rule. Repeated studies by various Innocence Projects, that explicitly aim to identify all cases of wrongful acquittals, invariably report that about 97-99% of all the convictions at trial that they evaluate are convictions of the guilty. (Throw in the fact that 90%+ of all convictions emerge from plea bargains –where the rate of false conviction hovers around 0.2%–and it’s clear that almost all those convicted of a crime are guilty.)

    Can you think of any other comparable, complex human activity where we make mistakes as rarely as 1-3% of the time? Let alone only 0.2% of the time? Surgeons botch operations at a higher rate than that. The FDA approves drugs as safe as long as they are 95% sure of their safety, meaning that about 5% of approved drugs are unsafe.

  3. Penalizing the innocent should serve to reduce to the absurd the practice of sentencing according to guilt acceptance. See the attached url for some analysis of judicial use of remorse as a sentencing factor.

  4. Penalizing the innocent should serve to reduce to the absurd the practice of sentencing according to guilt acceptance. See the attached url for some analysis of judicial use of remorse as a sentencing factor.

  5. rita says:

    Elizabeth:

    Weare family of Steven Nowicki, thanks for your support. How do you know about Steven’s imprisonment? Are you from NYS or read about it elsewhere, we would just to know how far this story has gone around the states, so that people could know what a travesty this is.HE IS GUILTY OF NOTHING EXCEPT BEING A KIND AND WONDERFUL PERSON, Thank you again

  6. Last year when I first heard the story about Tim Cole, it provided me with the incentive to write about it. So I contacted the Innocence Project of Texas, Tim Cole’s mother and family, researched the original trial transcripts and police investigative reports and conducted numerous interviews. Out of this came my forthcoming book titled A PLEA FOR JUSTICE: The Timothy Cole Story, published by Eakin Press, and set for release about May 01, 2010. My thanks to this blog for keeping this issue in front of the American public.

  7. Guilty until proven innocent says:

    When was the last time it was “to protect and to serve”?
    It’s to destroy (lives) and to seek (vengeance)!

    The people vote these laws in thinking it will help lower crime when all it does is vilify, fine and enslave the middle and lower classes AT RANDOM!

    If they even think you did a crime, they drag you into court in shackles, put on a show, lock you away, fine you into slavery and stamp you with “guilty”, ruining any possibility of landing a good job for the REST OF YOUR LIFE!

    And the best thing we’ve done about it was a few aimless occupy protests that were forgotten in less than a month!

    You think it wont happen to you and you may be right, but let me ask you:
    Can you afford $1500 for going 3MPH over the speeding limit because somebody needed to fill a quota?
    $500 for gum on the sidewalk that isn’t even yours? $10,000 for a dinged Mercedes that you didn’t even cause?

    You think I’m being unreasonable? You think it never happens? Would you gamble $12,000 on it?