As United States Exonerations Rise, Role of Guilty Pleas in Generating Wrongful Convictions Scrutinized
An Ohio man who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and eventually exonerated after spending 21 years in prison is just one among a growing number of exonerees who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, according to a news story published in today’s
In 1992, Glenn Tinney was already serving a 4 to 15-year prison sentence for an unrelated crime when he was questioned by investigators about the murder and robbery of a Mansfield, Ohio, businessman. Initially, Tinney denied any involvement. But, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia along with not having taken his medication prior to the interrogation, and facing the possibility of capital punishment, he ultimately pleaded guilty. By admitting to the charges, “prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty,” reports
, and Tinney was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Terry Gilbert, a Cleveland-based civil rights lawyer, observed that Tinney’s guilty plea and subsequent wrongful conviction weren’t mere coincidences but part of a wider pattern in a U.S. criminal justice system “created to get pleas,” says
“The pressure to plead guilty stems from the fear of going to trial,” said Gilbert. “People, especially those with a criminal record, know that the cards are stacked against them.”
Tinney was released in 2013 after Mansfield police sought the help of the
Ohio Innocence Project
, believing that “prosecutors moved too quickly and that Tinney was so delusional that he had falsely confessed to the crime,” according to the article. He was finally exonerated last year and is suing authorities for “malicious prosecution.”
The greater tragedy surrounding Tinney’s story, however, is that his was not an isolated case. The
article, in fact, comes on the heels of a recent report issued by the
National Registry of Exonerations
which warns that in 2015 alone, 65 people were exonerated nationally after pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, more than any previous year.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that innocent people plead guilty to crimes that they didn’t commit,” Samuel Gross, the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, explains. “People worry about what can happen if they go to trial and the several months that it takes to get there. They think that it is the best choice, the best option, even if they didn’t commit a crime.’”
In an editorial published last Saturday,
New York Times
similarly acknowledged the “bracing reminder that admissions of guilt are unreliable far more often than is generally believed.”
“Some defendants, especially the young or mentally impaired, can be pushed to admit guilt when they are innocent,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “Some with prior criminal records may not be able to afford bail but don’t want to spend months in pretrial detention or risk a much longer sentence if they choose to go to trial.”
has flagged guilty pleas as an insidious problem affecting wrongful convictions throughout the country. Approximately 10 percent of the 337 people exonerated by DNA testing in the United States pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.
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