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Innocent Punished More than the Guilty

The 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.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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