Three days into his carjacking trial in 2005, James Ochoa faced a daunting choice: Risk spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted by a California jury or plead guilty and be released in two years. Ochoa, then 20 and on probation for drug possession, had already rejected two plea offers and wanted to prove his innocence. But the judge made it clear the odds were against him because he had been identified by the victims as the perpetrator. If convicted, Ochoa feared he would never see his young son again.
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“I felt like I was gambling with my life,” he said from his home in the Dallas area.
He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the crime to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days.
Hundreds of others have faced the same dilemma. More than 300 of the more than 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry is maintained by the University of Michigan Law School using public information, such as court documents and news articles.
Last year, 68 out of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any previous year.
Critics say the numbers reflect an overwhelmed criminal justice system with public defenders who have more cases than they can handle and expedience on the part of court officials, who can save the government money with plea bargains compared with costly trials.
“Our criminal justice system has lost its way,” said David O. Markus, a prominent Miami defense attorney. “For a long time, it was our country’s crown jewel, built on the principle that it was better that 10 guilty go free than one innocent be wrongfully convicted. Now sadly, the system accepts and even encourages innocent people to plead guilty.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, state and federal lawmakers reacted to rising crime rates by imposing mandatory minimums and other sentencing laws to crack down on felons. As the penalties and risk of going to prison grew, so did the percentage of defendants who opted to plead guilty.
Last year, more than 97 percent of criminal defendants sentenced in federal court pleaded guilty compared with about 85 percent more than 30 years ago, according to data collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The increase in guilty pleas has been a gradual rise over the last three decades.
No entity gathers statistics for all state courts, but prosecutors, defense attorneys and law professors say they have also seen more cases at that level resolved by guilty pleas and fewer cases going to trial.
“When the penalties are so high, no one wants to take the risk of going to trial because if you lose, you’re going to go away for a long, long time,” said Jed Rakoff, a federal judge in New York.
No one knows exactly how many innocent people are behind bars for pleading guilty. Sociologists have estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of people who plead guilty are in fact innocent, said Rakoff, who has studied the issue for years.
In Ochoa’s case, he was charged with two counts of armed robbery and carjacking. Authorities said the crime occurred outside a nightclub in Buena Park, California. He faced 15 years to life in prison.
Ochoa’s attorney, Scott Borthwick, said he tried to talk him out of pleading guilty. Ochoa’s DNA wasn’t on anything inside the stolen car, but the carjacking victims positively identified him. Borthwick said the judge told him during a meeting in his chambers that if Ochoa was convicted by jurors, the judge would give him the maximum: life.
About 10 months after he pleaded guilty, another man was arrested in a different carjacking. The DNA found in the car in Ochoa’s case matched the man, who confessed to the crime.
After Ochoa’s release, he joined his family, who had moved to the Dallas area. He was turned down for jobs at Walmart and other places because the violent felony still showed up on his record, he said.
An officer for the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board initially recommended that Ochoa not receive any money for his imprisonment, saying Ochoa contributed to his erroneous conviction by pleaded guilty.
But in the end, the board granted Ochoa $31,700. He also got $550,000 to settle his lawsuit against the city of Buena Park and its police department.
Ochoa used the money to buy a house and began working as an electrician. That’s how he now supports his wife and two kids.
Even those who are close to Ochoa don’t understand why he pleaded guilty. His brother calls him dumb and his dad says he wouldn’t have signed the deal, Ochoa said.
“It’s hard for a person that hasn’t been through that to understand the way it is,” Ochoa said. “I didn’t want to plead guilty for something I didn’t do. I wanted to fight it.”
Judge Robert Fitzgerald, who heard Ochoa’s case, declined through a spokeswoman for the Orange County Superior Court to comment. Orange County District Attorney Anthony Rackauckas, whose office prosecuted it, said he was not immediately available for comment.
Those who were exonerated after pleading guilty often have prior criminal records, like Ochoa, and come from poor backgrounds and are not well-educated. They’re typically represented by public defenders juggling dozens of cases in a day and looking to cut good deals for their clients.
Many were cleared of wrongdoing by taking a new look at DNA evidence in blood or other body fluids, according to the University of Michigan database. Some were the victims of prosecutorial misconduct, while shoddy police work was to blame in other cases, such as a mistaken FBI hair analysis or falsified fingerprint evidence. Some falsely confessed because of improper interrogation techniques while others, like Ochoa, maintained their innocence throughout.
It’s not just prosecutors and defense attorneys who seek to cut plea deals. Many judges prefer that route. Judges who resolve cases rather than let them languish tend to be seen as more successful. Similarly, prosecutors who close cases tend to rise faster in their careers.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Lee Brannon of West Palm Beach, Florida, outlined his reasoning for a deal-first approach in a recent case involving victims of a serial sex molester. The victims had sued the federal government because the molester, a wealthy and well-connected financier, was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges without the victims’ advance knowledge.
Brannon urged the two sides to settle.
“If you go to trial, you’re going to lose control of the outcome. Nobody knows for sure how this is going to turn out,” he said. “Settle the case. That’s the way to move on.”