I'm not a natural basher of the USA as anyone who reads this blog could tell, however two recent stories that have been in news this week highlight a major flaw with their justice system. The guilty plea of the NatWest three as well as the reappearance of Conrad Black* in the media turn a spotlight on one of the least edifying aspects of the US justice system the use of plea bargaining to ensure convictions.
I've stated before my belief in the innocence of Conrad Black and I have no opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the Nat West 3. However look at the options that were put to the latter group by prosecutors, you can plead guilty to one of the charges and serve three years in prison or you can go to trial on all seven charges and risk almost four decades in prison. In those circumstances I would take the three years regardless of whether I was guilty or not, the risks of not doing so are simply too severe. In Conrad Black's case the prosecutor threw so many charges at Black, because he refused a plea bargain, that some of them were bound to stick.
To claim that the plea of the Nat West 3 vindicates the decision to allow them to be extradited is flawed reasoning, it merely demonstrates that they can calculate odds reasonably well. The end result of plea bargaining is that a lot of innocent people go to jail and a lot of guilty ones get off with a slap on the wrist for very serious crimes. What happens in high profile cases like these must pale in comparison with lower profile victims of this system.
Here is some stuff by those with greater legal expertise than on the dangers of plea bargaining, such as getting people guilty of one crime to admit to different crimes that they did not do or a de facto abolition of the jury system, whether the psychological coercion involved is even legal and most importantly freeing the guilty and convicting the innocent.
* On the subject of Conrad Black the Grauniad asks its readers whether it was right for the Today programme to interview him. The Guardian has given it's pages over to the likes of Gerry Adams, Osama Bin Laden and Fidel Castro to pontificate to their readership, but I guess they have to draw the moral line somewhere.
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