No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted are pressured to accept plea deals in lieu of exonerations. In Baltimore City and County alone—two separate jurisdictions with their own prosecutors—ProPublica identified at least 10 cases in the last 19 years in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up signing “Alford” pleas or time-served deals.
Ever since DNA ushered in a new era in criminal justice, even the toughest law-and-order advocates have come to acknowledge that some innocent people are locked away for crimes they didn’t commit. Less widely understood is just how reluctant the system is to righting those wrongs, The Atlantic and ProPublica report. Courts assess guilt or innocence only before a conviction. After that, appellate courts focus solely on fairness. In each case, exculpatory evidence was uncovered, persuasive enough to garner new trials, evidentiary hearings, or writs of actual innocence. No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted are pressured to accept plea deals in lieu of exonerations. In Baltimore City and County alone—two separate jurisdictions with their own prosecutors—ProPublica identified at least 10 cases in the last 19 years in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up signing “Alford” pleas or time-served deals.
Prosecutors defend the convictions, arguing that the deals were made for valid reasons—such as the death of a key witness or a victim’s unwillingness to weather a retrial. The current state’s attorney in Baltimore County, Scott Schellenberger, said “prosecutors take their oath to get it right very seriously” and wouldn’t stand in the way of exoneration if the facts called for it. The menace of such deals is clear: At worst, innocent people are stigmatized and unable to sue the state for false imprisonment, prosecutors keep unearned wins on their case records, and the real suspect is never brought to justice. The pleas in two Baltimore cases were later overturned after misconduct was uncovered in the original convictions, and the men won full exonerations. One, Walter Lomax, a black man convicted by an all-white jury shortly after the 1968 race riots in the city, served 38 years of a life sentence before taking a time-served deal in 2006. The state didn’t concede he was innocent until 2014. Lomax called it “horrible when it becomes obvious the person is innocent and the state won’t at the very least acknowledge that.” Some legal and cognitive-science experts suggest that once detectives and prosecutors commit to a suspect and a theory of the crime, it changes how they evaluate evidence, and then the system itself exacerbates that focus at every step.