Why would someone plead guilty to a crime they did not commit?
Once a confounding question, we now know that this is a common occurrence — and it leads to convictions in courts around the country on a regular basis.
Wrongful convictions are notoriously difficult to unwind. And it recently got a lot harder in New York. In People v. Tiger, the state’s highest court held that those who plead guilty can no longer challenge their convictions unless they have DNA evidence to support their claim.
But guilty pleas are too common for such a narrow safety valve. The legislature should react and build in strong protections for people forced by poverty or coercion into wrongly pleading guilty.
Tiger revolves around Natascha Tiger, a licensed nurse, who was bathing her disabled 10-year-old patient with a hand-held shower head when she noticed red peeling skin on the child’s leg. She notified the parents, who immediately sought medical attention. Before long, Ms. Tiger was criminally accused of assault and endangering a child for allegedly burning her patient during the bath.
Ms. Tiger ultimately faced a choice familiar to millions of people in this country: go to trial and risk being sent to prison for seven years or admit guilt and receive a reduced sentence. Ms. Tiger, already struggling to pay attorney fees, could not afford an expert witness to testify at trial so pled guilty on the advice of her attorney. She was sentenced to four months imprisonment, five years’ probation, and the lifetime of collateral consequences that come with a felony conviction.
Later, it came to light that the child’s injury was most likely caused by a routine medication — proving that Natascha was innocent. She went back to court and won an opportunity for a new hearing. But her victory was short-lived. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that because Ms. Tiger previously admitted guilt to the crime, she could not challenge her conviction on the grounds that she was actually innocent.
This general rule might seem reasonable until you explore some basic facts about our criminal justice system. For one, it’s a system built on guilty pleas. Meaning at least 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in guilty pleas. And we know with certainty that many people who plead guilty did not commit the alleged crime. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a significant proportion of overturned convictions stem from false guilty pleas, and that ratio has grown alongside the justice system’s increased reliance on plea deals. From 2000 to 2009, nine percent of exonerees pled guilty to the crimes leading to their conviction. From 2010–18 the percentage more than tripled to 29 percent.
After Tiger, New Yorkers who plead guilty only have one pathway left to assert their innocence — obtaining new DNA evidence. But the data suggests this does not go nearly far enough. Of the 270 exonerations in New York since 1989, DNA only played a role in 43 cases. The remaining 227 cases represent 2,004 years of wrongful incarceration. Further, DNA evidence is not as infallible as many think. In truth, the results are only as reliable as the technicians that find them.
To be sure, there are reasons to limit challenges to guilty pleas. The Tiger Court cited the preservation of judicial resources and the State’s interest in finality, to name two. These are important considerations, but as Judge Rowan Wilson points out in his dissent in Tiger, “’conservation of judicial resources’ does not appear alongside ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”
And other states have radically expanded post-conviction challenges, and the sky has not fallen. For example, Texas’s highest criminal court ruled 16 years ago that a claim of actual innocence was not barred by a guilty plea. Since 2010, Texas has had 249 exonerations, more than double any other state. And here is the kicker: 80 percent of those people pled guilty. Harris County in particular has made a commitment to remedying and preventing wrongful convictions, with 42 in 2015 alone. Yet it is sobering to think many of these exonerations would have been impossible if Tiger was the law of the land.
New York should act before it falls further behind. Natascha Tiger’s case would be easy for the state to correct by amending its post-conviction relief statute: N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 440.10. In fact, this is overdue. For years New York trial courts have wrestled with whether and how to create an “actual innocence” remedy for people like Natascha. The Legislature could resolve the uncertainty — and clarify an ambiguous area of law — with a simple, technical fix.
Blocking people from asserting their innocence in the face of compelling evidence discredits the justice system in the eyes of every New Yorker. There must be a safety valve for people who plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. It is now up to the Legislature to create one.