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I was convicted of a crime I did not commit. I plea-bargained down from the one I actually did.
—Rufus T. "Buck" Wild, Icon
A very few attorneys can make a living solely representing innocent people who have been falsely accused of crimes. Perry Mason and Phoenix Wright, for example. But most defense attorneys don't have that luxury. Guilty people are legally entitled to representation too (at least in the USA) and odds are a given lawyer will wind up with at least a few of them as clients.
Now, if the prosecution's case is weak, or you've got a flair for the dramatic, Courtroom Antics and looking for technicalities might win the day. But sometimes the evidence is airtight, the prosecutor is a pro, and the judge has no mercy. At that point, the client's best interest might lie in making a Plea Bargain.
Essentially, the defendant agrees to plead "guilty" to one or more charges, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Often, a lesser charge is agreed to, avoiding a harsher penalty. For example, plea bargaining a felony down to misdemeanor, or an offense that would get the defendant on a "sex offenders" listing down to one that will not. The prosecutor may also recommend a lighter sentence to the judge, usually within the standard range. For instance, crime A is worth 6-9 months, crime B is worth 18-24 months. The accused was originally charged with crime B, but bargains and pleads guilty to crime A, and in exchange, the prosecutor recommends a sentence of 6 months. The judge may choose to give more, but only up to 9 months. Also note that the acceptance of the plea bargain is entirely dependent on the judge: if he or she feels the plea bargain is a gross miscarriage of justice (if a first-degree murder is pleaded down to manslaughter for example), the plea bargain can be rejected. If this happens, expect the judge to rebuke the prosecution.
In some cases, the defendant will be required to testify against other criminals as part of the deal, or to provide other services.
And it's a pretty good deal for the prosecution too, usually. Sure, they probably could have gotten a conviction, but full trials take time, and money, and tie up attorneys who could be working on the next case. It has been pointed out many times that if a sizable number of defendants suddenly refused to plea-bargain it would cause a collapse of the legal system, as the government would be unable to hold trials for them all. In the United States as much as 97% of cases are resolved by plea bargaining. Note also this can be subject to Eagleland Osmosis. In most civil law nations it's simply not possible. Even if you plead guilty they do a full trial to establish how much time you get. In the other Common Law nations, it's officially frowned on and officially doesn't happen. Unofficially it happens all the time, but it's considered very impolite to suggest it. This has been a huge issue at international tribunals. Depending on conditions in the facility a suspect is held in pre-trial, it could also be seen as coercing a confession.
With the vastly over crowded court system, any case which is NOT settled in a plea bargain is one where either the defense feels there is a very good chance to win or the prosecution feels the crime is so bad and has so much publicity they won't.
Because a Plea Bargain is not nearly as dramatic as a case that goes to trial, the frequency of the two is inverted between Real Life and fiction.
Some dramatic situations that might be seen with a Plea Bargain:
- The attorney tries to get one for a client, but the client has the attitude I Won't Say I'm Guilty, forcing a trial to go forward.
- If the client is innocent, an Amoral Attorney may pressure him to do a Plea Bargain anyway, because the case would be too hard to win, or for less savory reasons.
- A particularly vile defendant offers a plea bargain that essentially lets him get off scot-free, and the prosecution refuses it.
- The main story is about someone else's trial, and the person who made a Plea Bargain testifies against them as part of the deal. Naturally, the second defendant's attorney will cast aspersions on the witness' motivations and veracity.
- As seen in the page quote, Buck Wild from Milestone Comics's Icon series benefited from one of these.
- Bloom County parodies this with a plea bargain for the death penalty.
- John Hartigan from Sin City agrees to a plea bargain so that he could get parole and track down Nancy Callahan, believing that she had been kidnapped.
- In A Few Good Men, LT Dan Kaffee (Tom Cruise's character) has made a career out of skillful plea bargaining, but he decides not to on this case once he sees the emotional damage it'd do to his clients.
- Not only is it the case that Kaffee has made a career out of his plea negotiating skills, but it's pretty much implied that the authorities assigned him to the case with the expectation that he'd plea his clients out, thus preventing the scandalous details of PFC Santiago's murder from becoming public.
- Kaffee actually takes the plea bargain to his client, who gives him an earful of I Won't Say I'm Guilty
- Velma Kelly gets a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Roxie Hart in Chicago.
- A plea bargain given to the wrong party (the actual killer, who sold his patsy down the river) is the motive for Law Abiding Citizen to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- In Rumpole of the Bailey (the book versions, anyway), Rumpole makes a point of never having his clients plead guilty, and any lawyer in the books who even thinks of plea bargaining is seen as a moron. The odd thing is that Rumpole sometimes does lose the case this way, but the story is clearly on his side.
- There is one story where Rumpole does end up going for a plea bargain, but only after his client has made it impossible for him to continue believing in her innocence, and his principles won't allow him to defend somebody he knows to be guilty.
- Attempts at plea bargains are common in the various Law and Order series, usually between the apprehension and trial phases.
- Which is a bit of a problem in the UK version as plea bargains aren't allowed under English law (although reduced sentances for pleading guilty are standard practise).
- Shark (the show with James Woods) has this happen regularly, or at least has attempts to plea bargain.
- Homicide: Life on the Street frequently went to plea bargain by the end of the story.
- There is an episode of Boston Legal that uses this. Alan Shore's client an old friend and fellow lawyer who is accused of murder. She is offered a plea bargain at the beginning but of course won't say she's guilty and has a Big Secret.
- The issue of whether or not to accept an offered plea bargain is a common plot point in The Practice.
- In Sodality, the sheer chaos erupting in Toklisana results in the Sodality women, arrested over the Beliah Amendments to the Kirby Act declaring their existence illegal, to have their interrogations and trial merged into one - along with receiving sentencing the same day in an expedited process.
- Candi, Dolly, Stephanie, Hea, Miranda, Emily, Michelle, Marge, and especially Celia use this setup as an opportunity to cut a deal; protecting their men while also reducing how much trouble they themselves can get into. It (mostly) works.
- Doesn't work out so well for Tiffany (because she's so heavily indoctrinated in Navyrope dogma), Tabitha (who's too young and too scared to try the same Courtroom Antics as her adult friends), Keet (who is terrible at self-advocacy), or Mingmei (whose MSS affiliation and past spy actions make her a candidate for the death penalty.)
- Anna and Charlotte are let off the hook, provided Charlotte doesn't leave Louisiana. Donte, Jack, and Wilbur are given slap-on-the-wrist sentences. Evan fails miserably at plea bargaining, but manages to escape. Angelo nearly gets turned into a Human Popsicle because he won't stop using his Reality Warper powers to troll everyone.
- Pam is given only a week, because they cannot prove she actually involves herself in Eric's Extirpon affairs.
- In Cherinob 2, it's the detective rather than Cherinob herself that wants her to strike a bargain. She just wants to be contained where her deadly radiation won't kill everyone, until she can remove the device sabotaging her powers and regain control of them. She shows little concern where they put her, so long as it can contain her intense radioactivity. All she was caught doing was trying to stuff herself into a barrel.
- In the second case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All, the first thing Franziska tells Phoenix at the start of the trial is that he would be pleading within the first 10 minutes of the trial. Phoenix is later gave the choice of pleading or not, but the situation is a But Thou Must! and he ends up not pleading.
- During Prohibition, "bargain days" were the only way many courts could keep up with the alcohol-related workload. Everyone who agreed to plead guilty in exchange for the smallest penalty the judge could get away with would be scheduled for the same court date, and the formalities were zipped through to clear as many cases off the docket as possible.
- Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka is one infamous example of a plea bargain. After assisting her husband Paul Bernardo in the murder and rape of three girls (including her own sister) in the city of St. Catharine's, she struck a deal with the prosecutors and received a 12 year sentence in exchange for taking the stand against Bernardo, who ended up getting life. Unfortunately, not long after the trial closed, tapes were found of the murders that revealed that Karla had had more to do with the murders than previously thought. For this reason, the case is often referred to as "the Deal with the Devil."
- Any smart prosecutor would make the deal dependent on her telling the full truth, with the agreement being that it was invalid if she didn't. In the USA, the prosecutor can do this. Such agreements can be worse for the guilty party than otherwise, because they can allow the prosecutor to then use any statements made prior, as well as set aside statutes of limitation.
- Roman Polanski's reasons for escaping from his sexual assault case in the USA hinged on technical details of plea bargaining. Polanski and the prosecutor agreed and submitted a plea bargain where Polanski would not be imprisoned, but the judge threatened not to accept these terms and have him do 90 days.
- Despite possibly killing close to a hundred people, serial killer Carl Eugene Watts ("The Sunday Morning Slasher") was nearly released in 2006 due to a plea bargain made at the time of his arrest.