As an attorney who handles criminal matters, two Supreme Court decisions handed down on March 21, 2012, raise a number of issues to ponder. Full disclosure: I’ve not yet read the entire opinions, nor any dissents; merely the syllabi. Both cases dealt with ineffective assistance of counsel claims by defendants who were convicted at trial. In both cases, plea deals were presented by prosecutors. In Frye, defense counsel did not inform the defendant of the deals. In Cooper, defense counsel advised the defendant to pass on the deal, and go to trial. In both, the sentences rendered post trial were more severe than the offered deals.
A recent New York Time article raised the issue of shutting down the criminal justice system by refusing to accept a plea offer. That’s a simplification of the article’s premise, but an accurate one. The article was well written and raised important issues. According to the author, “More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.” I’ll take her word on the statistic for the time being, since my experience would tend to support those numbers. The crux of the article is less dramatic than its title may let on however; its not claiming that a plea bargain is never in a defendant’s best interest, but the author, through her interviewee, makes the case that often times, it is not. No disagreement on that point.
The Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment is one of the Constitutional protections afforded a defendant in a criminal matter. Essentially, a defendant has the right to confront or cross examine witnesses against him. In Bruton v. United States 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968), where a non-testifying co-defendant’s confession directly and powerfully incriminates the defendant, the Supreme Court found that an instruction to the jury to consider the evidence against only the co-defendant is insufficient to protect the defendant’s Sixth Amendment confrontation rights.
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