This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
It is a long process. Researching, analyzing, recording, and transferring the information gathered into the spreadsheet for each case takes time, and is especially draining when you lack a thorough understanding of how court cases function or law-related terminology. Given this is my first semester researching for the Prosecution Project, I had to spend time learning the definitions of many words and phrases. One thing that confused me for a while were the different types of court decisions and plea options for defendants. As a result, I want others to have a better understanding of the pleas and court decisions we consider, because most of this information is vital to understanding any local or national court case along with understanding the Prosecution Project’s methods.
In the courtroom, there exist three pleas: guilty, meaning you admit to your offense; not guilty, meaning you disagree with your charges and wish to challenge them in court; and no contest, meaning you neither agree nor disagree with the charges and simply wish to close the case (Criminal Law 101 FAQ). In our dataset, however, we consider eleven different types of pleas to get a better understanding of the defendant’s head state, which include: guilty, guilty on some counts and not guilty on others, guilty but mentally ill, non-cooperating plea agreement, insanity, justifiable defense/homicide, divine obligation, charged but not tried, pending, not Guilty, and unknown. In our dataset, we also consider nine different court decisions, including: guilty, plea bargain (guilty), guilty on some charges, non-cooperating plea agreement, incompetent to stand trial, hung jury/mistrial, charged but not tried, pending, and not guilty.
By considering each plea and court decision one at a time, we can develop a better understanding of how the tPP analyzes cases. So, what does it mean to plead guilty? This means the defendant is confronted with a case and wishes to resolve it quickly. Defendants will usually plead guilty for three reasons: sentencing, money, and the uncertainty of trial. If a defendant chooses to plead guilty after reaching a bargain with a prosecutor, he may get his time in jail reduced. Defendants will also plead guilty if they do not have the money or time to wait for a trial and pay for a good lawyer. Finally, defendants will also plead guilty to avoid the uncertainty of a trial. By going through a trial, more evidence against the defendant has the potential to surface, along with unwanted amounts of media attention (Pleading Guilty or Going to Trial: Pros and Cons). One trend seen in our dataset is the guilty plea of minorities and lower-class citizens, because these groups are less likely to afford big-shot lawyers. Often, as well, criminals who committed bigger crimes will plead guilty to lesser offenses to reduce the potential for larger sentences.
This leads into our dataset’s second plea option, which is pleading guilty on some accounts and not others. An example of this is when a defendant is being charged with “assault with a weapon” for throwing a phone at someone. The defendant would choose to plead guilty to assault instead, because that is a subset of the charge (Guilty Pleas | LawFacts). Roughly 95% of criminal court cases end with some sort of plea bargain, making guilty pleas the most popular in our dataset (Denver). If a defendant chooses to enter a plea bargain but only speaks to their own involvement in case and will not give information out about other criminals or co-defendants, we code the plea as a noncooperating plea agreement. Anarchist groups are likely to do this because pleading for other defendants gives the government a sort of upper-hand, which goes against their philosophy of self-governance.
If a defendant is found guilty for an offense but committed to a mental hospital instead of prison, we would enter their plea as guilty but mentally ill. These defendants are deemed to lack the mental capabilities to withstand prison. To plea insanity is a plea of guilt, but with reasoning pertaining to why the defendant committed the crime (Guilty but Mentally Ill Law and Legal Definition | USLegal, Inc.). Defendants will plea insanity when they want to pursue the idea that they were too sick to understand the legal consequences or the impact of their actions.
Aside from pleading insanity, we code for other pleas that include a defendant’s justification for his actions. When a defendant pleads a justifiable offense/homicide, the defendant is using the self-defense argument, meaning his actions were called for given the circumstance. We say a defendant pleads divine obligation when he was compelled to commit a crime because some deity or god commanded him to carry through. We see this plea most commonly with radical religious groups.
Defendants will plead not guilty in the pursuit of justice. As opposed to pleading guilty to avoid the financial struggle and timeline of a trial, the defendant will go to trial if they believe there is not enough evidence to convict him or that he was wrongly convicted. If, however, the defendant pleads not guilty and is found guilty by the court, the consequences are more dire.
The rest of the pleas code for are less complex. Pending will be used for more recent cases in which a defendant has been charged and we are waiting to hear their response. Charged but not tried usually occurs when something happens that inhibits the hearing to proceed, such as the defendant running away to another country or the defendant dying. Last, we use unknown when we cannot find any of the other pleas.
We clarify a court decision as guilty for defendants that plead guilty, plea bargain, and guilty on some charges but not others. This results in the defendant serving out some sentence, and includes but is not limited to an X number of years, life, death, or additional sentencing such as supervised release or deportation.
If the court determines someone as incompetent to stand trial, that means that the defendant is unable to keep up with or fully understand his trial due to some sort of mental or developmental disability (What Happens if I am Found Incompetent to Stand Trial?). This will usually result in holding off the trial until a psychologist or medical examiner is able to deem the defendant competent or bring the defendant up to competency. When competence is reestablished, the trial will proceed.
If we code a court decision as a hung jury/mistrial, we consider multiple reasons as to why a decision could not be reached. A hung jury is when the jury cannot reach a verdict and is unable to reach unanimity or supermajority regarding the defendant’s guilt or innocence. A mistrial, like a hung jury, can happen when there is lack of jurisdiction, problems with the jury, death or illness of necessary attorneys, or obvious prejudices (Mistrial).
When the court decision is declared as not guilty, that means the prosecutor had not proved the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Last, like the pleas, the rest of the court decisions are less complex. We make a court decision pending for more recent cases where a verdict has not been reached. We say charged but not tried when the defendant is not present to be tried.
Now that there is a more thorough understanding of how the Prosecution Project analyzes a defendant’s plea and a court’s decision, outside viewers can acknowledge the depth we take when looking into cases. By considering each of these types of pleas and court decisions, we as the tPP can uncover facts about a case that may get overpassed.
“Criminal Law 101 FAQ: Types of Criminal Pleas.” Fighter Law, www.fighterlaw.com/criminal-law-101/criminal-trial-lawyer/types-of-criminal-pleas/.
“Pleading Guilty or Going to Trial: Pros and Cons.” Hg.org, www.hg.org/legal-articles/pleading-guilty-or-going-to-trial-pros-and-cons-36359.
Guilty Pleas | LawFacts, lawfacts.ca/criminal/guiltypleas.
Dever, Lindsey. Plea and Charge Bargaining. Bureau of Justice Assistance U.S. Department of Justice, 24 Jan. 2011.
“Guilty but Mentally Ill Law and Legal Definition.” Guilty but Mentally Ill Law and Legal Definition | USLegal, Inc., US Legal, Inc, definitions.uslegal.com/g/guilty-but-mentally-ill/.
“What Happens If I Am Found Incompetent to Stand Trial?” Blanchard Law, 8 Aug. 2018, blanchard.law/incompetent-stand-trial/.
“Mistrial.” The Free Dictionary, Farlex, legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/mistrial.