The Problem with Capital Pleas
19 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2022
Date Written: August 1, 2022
In United States v. Jackson, the Supreme Court recognized the importance of protecting an individual's jury trial rights in capital plea bargaining. With the subsequent Brady trilogy, however, the Court’s plea bargaining doctrine migrated away from Jackson and accepted pleas in capital cases as long as the defendant had counsel.
Over the past twenty years, the capital punishment landscape has significantly narrowed, with only twenty new death sentences a year, most coming from the few counties that have the economic resources to pursue the death penalty. The decreased likelihood of receiving a death sentence could, in theory, convince more capital defendants to go to trial as opposed to entering plea deals, especially as juries, even in Texas, are increasingly disinclined to impose death sentences. But the risk of execution remains too heavy a thumb on the scale. The effect of this dynamic is that prosecutors essentially have the power to impose mandatory LWOP sentences in homicide cases, simply by threatening to pursue the death penalty.
As such, this essay makes the case that, taken together, the values of the Fifth (right not to plead guilty), Sixth (trial by jury, right of confrontation, right to present witnesses), and Eighth Amendments (right to heightened scrutiny in capital cases) should lead the Court, legislatures, or prosecutors themselves to eliminate plea agreements in capital cases, particularly those that result in LWOP sentences. Such bargained sentences almost certainly reflect the coercion of the prosecutor in an unequal bargaining dynamic rather than a voluntary acceptance of a proportional punishment for one’s crime.
Keywords: United States V. Jackson, Brady, Plea Bargains, Death Penalty, Capital Punishment, LWOP
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