This is a story about how an innocent man pleaded guilty to an offer too-good-to-refuse, and demonstrates what is broken about our justice system.
I represented a young man who was charge with Rape, and because the child was less than 10 years of age, he faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. The State had no evidence beyond the word of the child.
As I investigated the case, it became apparent that there was more to the story, and most of what I discovered put real doubt into whether the allegation ever occurred. I turned this evidence over to the Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, who offered to reduce the charge to another sex offense that did not carry a mandatory prison term of life without parole. However, it still carried significant prison time and the need to register as a sex offender. My Client turned down that offer.
As the child was less than 10 years of age, I moved to have him found incompetent to testify under Ohio Rules of Evidence Rule 601(A). The Trial Court set a hearing to determine the child’s competency. The Trial Court struggled with finding the Child competent, in part because his story continually changed even to the point of including imaginary characters in the room during the alleged rape, but finally did so.
The next day, I received a phone call from the Assistant Prosecuting Attorney with a plea offer. The State would be willing to accept an Alford plea to a reduced charge of Attempted Abduction, a felony of the fourth degree. Attempted Abduction is not a sex offense, and the Client would not have to register as a sex offender. Further, because the Client had no prior record, the Trial Court had to impose Community Control Sanctions and could not impose prison. Finally, the Client had been held in the County Jail for over five months awaiting trial and a plea and sentence would see him released.
While I felt confident of a not guilty verdict at trial, the possibility of a guilty verdict with the attendant sentence of life in prison without parole - no matter how remote - was chilling for my Client. When presented with the plea offer, the Client jumped at it.
The Judge was happy to accept the plea and the case went forward without issue. My Client was sentenced to four years Community Control and expressed his gratitude at the result.
It was only weeks later that I really thought about what the case said about our justice system. Based upon the plea offer made by the Assistant Prosecuting Attorney and the acceptance by the Judge of the same, I believe they thought my Client would be found not guilty at trial. How then did my Client come to plead guilty? The answer is that my Client acted in his best interest.
As his defense attorney, I could have advised my Client to reject the plea and to go to trial; however, that was not what was best for this Client because there is always a risk of conviction when a jury decides a case. A conviction in this case meant life in prison without parole for my Client. No ifs ands or buts, if convicted of the charge the Judge had to sentence my Client to a prison term of life in prison without parole. The thought of this had been keeping my Client up at night.
Taking the plea meant no admission of guilt, no conviction for a sex offense, release from jail and a sentence of community control. I reviewed all the options with my Client and after looking at the options thoroughly, my Client decided the plea was in his best interest. While he would be a felon, for him a guaranteed sentence of community control was better than even the slim possibility of a sentence of life in prison without parole. My Client determine that when spending the rest of your life in prison is one the line, sometimes you can’t fight for what is right.
That is the story of how an innocent man pleaded guilty to an offer too-good-to-refuse. The combination of a mandatory sentence of life without parole and a Client’s self interest led an innocent man to plead guilty.
John Cornelly is a criminal defense attorney praciting in Delaware County Ohio. You can learn more about Mr. Cornelly at http://www.cornely-law.com/.
 An Alford plea is one that permits a defendant, with appropriate constitutional safeguards, to plead guilty to a charge while maintaining his or her innocence. North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S. Ct. 160 (1970).