The Unexonerated: Factually Innocent Defendants Who Plead Guilty

43 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2012 Last revised: 2 Oct 2013

See all articles by John H. Blume

John H. Blume

Cornell Law School

Rebecca Helm

University of Exeter - School of Law

Date Written: July 11, 2012


Several recent high profile cases, including the case of the West Memphis Three, have revealed (again), that factually innocent defendants do plead guilty. And, more disturbingly in many of the cases, the defendant’s innocence is known, or at least highly suspected at the time the plea is entered. Innocent defendants plead guilty most often, but not always, in two sets of cases: first, low level offenses where a quick guilty plea provides the key to the cellblock door; and second, cases where defendants have been wrongfully convicted, prevail on appeal, and are then offered a plea bargain which will assure their immediate or imminent release. There are three primary contributing factors leading a criminal justice system where significant numbers of innocent defendants plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The first is the perceived need that all defendants must plead. The second is the current draconian sentencing regime for criminal offenses. And, the final contributing factor is that plea bargaining is, for the most part, an unregulated industry. This article discusses cases in which innocent defendants plead guilty to obtain their release, thus joining the “unexonerated” and then propose several options the criminal justice system should embrace to avoid, or at least ameliorate the plight of innocent defendants who plead guilty.

Keywords: unexonerated

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Blume, John H. and Helm, Rebecca, The Unexonerated: Factually Innocent Defendants Who Plead Guilty (July 11, 2012). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN: or

John H. Blume (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Rebecca Helm

University of Exeter - School of Law ( email )

Streatham Court
University of Exeter
Exeter, EX4 4QJ
United Kingdom


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