Sunday, January 26, 2014

Too many questionable guilty pleas

Emily Sasso is a freshman at Columbia University. Her father, Tampa lawyer Gary Sasso, represents Michael Perez in the appeal before the Florida Supreme Court. She wrote the following opinion exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.  It was published on January 24, 2014.

In court, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But on the long journey from the back of a squad car to the dock, they are too often presumed guilty, and the legal system is heavily stacked against them before they get their day in court. That needs to change.

A case in point: high school dropout Michael Perez. Nearly 15 years ago, Miami detectives questioned the then 16-year-old Perez about the murder of Jimmy Ramirez. Perez repeatedly asked for a lawyer and to see his family, but the detectives told him that a lawyer was unnecessary and that they could not get his family. Perez says the detectives screamed at him, and he says he told them Ramirez was killed in a drive-by shooting. He said that he was innocent.

Late that night, the detectives got Perez to confess. Only then did they start to record the interrogation.

After Perez confessed and was charged with murder, he was assigned a public defender who argued that Perez was not mentally capable of making a valid confession. The teenager had frequent seizures and low brain function. The examiner concluded that Perez was mentally capable of confessing but expressed no view on whether he had been intimidated into doing so. Perez then pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Recently, another eyewitness came forward to say that Perez is innocent and that a now-deceased gang member killed Ramirez in a drive-by shooting. The new eyewitness waited to speak out until the gang member was killed because he did not want to risk his own life.

Perez is seeking to revoke his guilty plea and says the real killer told him he would kill Perez and his sister if he told the truth. A Miami trial judge rejected Perez's challenge, but a state appellate court overturned that decision and ordered that Perez should receive a full hearing on these new developments. The state has appealed this decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has established rules to protect innocent people from pleading guilty. It requires that all pleas be fair, voluntary, and taken only by a guilty defendant facing little chance of acquittal. But these criteria appear to be ineffective.

The Perez case is one of many cases where guilty pleas are entered in questionable circumstances. The Innocence Project, which helps exonerate wrongly convicted defendants, has produced two studies showing that innocent defendants are too often coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit through overly aggressive interrogation. Of nearly 250 defendants who have been exonerated in the last 30 years, 32 percent suffered from mental disabilities, 63 percent were under the age of 26, and some, like Perez, lacked legal representation before confessing.

More disconcerting, the courts are too often accepting these problematic confessions as valid, and innocent people are being sent to prison. It is the defense counsel's job to protect defendants from this fate. But these lawyers have not witnessed the interrogations. Defendants must convince their attorney the confession was false, and the attorney must convince a court or jury that the confession was false. That can be an uphill battle.

When caught in a legal bind, the wealthy can afford to hire a defense team with substantial resources to devote to the case. With this edge, private-sector lawyers can protect them from confessing to crimes they did not commit and from accepting a plea agreement in desperation.

Indigent defendants must rely on court-appointed attorneys engaged only after the interrogation and confession. These attorneys are usually highly capable, but they often have too many cases to handle. They cannot devote the same attention to each case, and they may arrive too late to prevent overreaching by zealous law enforcement authorities.

Our justice system is not doing its job. To protect the innocent, better safeguards are needed. We need to apply the presumption of innocence from the beginning, not only at a trial. Courts should not accept dubious pleas, especially when the defendant has previously insisted on his or her innocence. Authorities should refrain from pressuring suspects to confess absent overwhelming evidence of guilt. This is especially important when the subject is young, unrepresented by a lawyer and facing serious charges like Perez did. To help ensure confessions are voluntary, all of a defendant's interactions with police interrogators should be recorded. Finally, the criminal justice system has to slow down the conveyor belt; the system needs to give each case a closer look in order to provide the protection the accused need and deserve.

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