How to make an innocent client plead guilty

You think back to a man who once visited your office for help getting the record of his sole conviction sealed. Before the conviction, he had a job, a girlfriend and a newborn daughter. Then he lost a drug case in which a pistol was found nearby. At sentencing, the judge acknowledged the inappropriateness of the five-year mandatory minimum and even asked the prosecution to consider dismissing the charge that carried the mandatory time. It didn’t. When he eventually got out, you couldn’t even help him seal his record so he could move forward with his life because, in your jurisdiction, felonies can never be sealed.

The other option, you explain to your client, is to accept the plea offer. In some cases, the sentencing difference between accepting a plea and losing at trial can be a matter of decades. It’s no wonder 95 percent of all defendants accept plea offers. Or that, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 15 percent of all exonerees — people convicted of crimes later proved to be innocent — originally pleaded guilty. That share rises to 49 percent for people exonerated of manslaughter and 66 percent for those exonerated of drug crimes.

You tell your client that they would probably win at trial, but if they lose, they will go to prison. The plea promises some meaningful benefit: getting out of jail sooner, avoiding deportation, not losing a job, seeing a daughter before her next birthday. But your client would have to accept responsibility for a crime they may not have committed.