The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem

49 Pages Posted: 31 May 2012 Last revised: 25 Jun 2014

See all articles by Lucian E. Dervan

Lucian E. Dervan

Belmont University - College of Law

Vanessa Edkins

Florida Institute of Technology

Date Written: May 31, 2012


In 1989, Ada JoAnn Taylor was accused of murder and presented with stark options. If she pleaded guilty, she would be rewarded with a sentence of ten to forty years in prison. If, however, she proceeded to trial and was convicted, she would likely spend the rest of her life behind bars. Over a thousand miles away in Florida and more than twenty years later, a college student was accused of cheating and presented with her own incentives to admit wrongdoing and save the university the time and expense of proceeding before a disciplinary review board. Both women decided the incentives were enticing and pleaded guilty.

That Taylor and the college student both pleaded guilty is not the only similarity between the cases. Both were also innocent of the offenses for which they had been accused. After serving nineteen years in prison, Taylor was exonerated after DNA testing proved that neither she nor any of the other five defendants who pleaded guilty in her case were involved in the murder. As for the college student, her innocence is assured by the fact that, unbeknownst to her, she was actually part of an innovative new study into plea bargaining and innocence.

This article discusses the study, which involved dozens of college students and took place over several months. The study revealed that more than half of the innocent participants were willing to falsely admit guilt in return for a benefit. These research findings bring significant new insights to the long-standing debate regarding the extent of plea bargaining’s innocence problem. The article also discusses the history of bargained justice and examines the constitutional implications of the study’s results on plea bargaining, an institution the Supreme Court reluctantly approved in 1970 in return for an assurance it would not be used to induce innocent defendants to falsely admit guilt.

Keywords: plea bargaining, innocence, empirical study, psychological study, criminal law, criminal procedure, constitutional law

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K14, K30, K40, K42

Suggested Citation

Dervan, Lucian E. and Edkins, Vanessa, The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem (May 31, 2012). 103 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 1, 2013, Available at SSRN: or

Lucian E. Dervan (Contact Author)

Belmont University - College of Law ( email )

1900 Belmont Boulevard
Nashville, TN 37212
United States


Vanessa Edkins

Florida Institute of Technology ( email )

150 West University Blvd.
Melbourne, FL 32901-6975
United States

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