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Suppose you have been wrongly accused of murder. You know you are innocent but you also know that the states attorney believes you are guilty. The attorney offers you 25 years if you plead guilty but If you go to trial you will be executed if you are found guilty. You are unsure of your chances of winning the case so to prevent the possibility of death you accept the plea. Does the fact that you chose the plea bargain mean that you acknowledge that it is better to have a plea bargain than not have a plea bargain? If it is better for you to have it than not have it then does that mean that someone who would consider such a plea bargain to be coercion is wrong?

August 29, 2013

Response from Charles Taliaferro on August 29, 2013
Great question! I suggest that if you do take the plea bargain and you think that your action was prudent and permissible (under the circumstances), then you are implicitly committed to think that others who are in a similar situation would also be prudent and doing something permissible if they did the same. But your taking the bargain is compatible with you thinking that the choice you were given (either take a bargain which involves you taking responsibility for a crime you did not commit or face execution) was itself the result of a grave, profound wrong. In your description of the case you do not stipulate whether the attorney's belief in your guilt is reasonable (there is some evidence you did the crime and, while it is false that you are the murderer most reasonable people would believe you are the killer based on the evidence). If the attorney truly and reasonably thinks you are guilty, the choice he gives you is tragic and wrong but it was based on (let us imagine) the attorney's best judgment. However, if the attorney is acting with malice or recklessness, this is a clear case of putting you in a tragic, unwarranted dilemma. In that case, it seems that the attorney is culpable (blameworthy, guilty) of putting you in a situation in which you seem (based on your natural desire to avoid wrongful execution) coerced or forced to make a decision that deeply violates your integrity. Your integrity is compromised insofar as you seem forced to be deceptive and to play into the wrongful accusation that you committed a wrongful act when you did not.
Response from Allen Stairs on August 29, 2013
Given that I'm in the rotten situation of being charged with a murder I didn't commit, it may be a good thing for me that I can avoid being executed. But I'm in a rotten situation; all things considered, my situation is bad. It's bad even if I would be a fool not to accept the plea deal. It's bad even if the possibility of plea deals is a good thing in general, and even if the prosecutor is acting entirely responsibly. (Let's suppose the murder I'm accused of is a particularly heinous crime and that the evidence is strong, even if it points to the wrong conclusion.) It could be good for the justice system overall that plea deals like this are possible, good for me from a narrow point of view that I can accept the deal, and yet, given that I'm innocent, a bad situation from my larger point of view.

What about coercion? If we use that word, most people would understand it to mean that the prosecutor shouldn't be putting me in this situation---that a responsible prosecutor wouldn't offer such a stark choice. That's a different question from whether the deal is a good one for me from one point of view or another. Though I'm innocent, the prosecutor might have strong reasons to think I'm not, and she might be following reasonable guidelines scrupulously. That would make the word "coercion" a poor fit. On the contrary, it could be that the prosecutor firmly believes that offering this deal has an element of mercy about it and that she privately hopes I'll accept it because though she thinks I'm guilty, she abhors the death penalty. Whether the deal is coercive is a question about whether the prosecutor is doing something wrong by offering it, and not simply a question about how things look from my own point of view.

Also: whether it's better for me to have the plea option than not to and whether it's coercive aren't the same question. Leave your specific example aside. Suppose we have a case where a reasonable punishment would be, say, 5 years. Suppose I'm innocent and the evidence is not overwhelming, but the prosecutor needs more successful prosecutions under his belt to keep the voters happy. Furthermore, the prosecutor doesn't like me. Suppose the deal I'm offered is that I get 8 years if I plead guilty and 20 years if I lose at trial. It might be that all things considered, I should accept the deal. But given the particulars, it sounds like coercion. The prosecutor is putting unreasonable pressure on me to accept a bad deal just because it suit his purposes.

There's no puzzle here, and this brings us to the final point. The thing about coercion is that it works by putting people in a situation where their options are wrongly narrowed and where given those bad options they are rational to accept a result that in a just world they wouldn't have been faced with. In the case we just described, it's better for me to have the unreasonable option of 8 years in jail than not to. But I'm still being coerced.

So maybe your case is coercion, and maybe it's not. That's a different question from whether the possibility of plea deals is good overall, and it's a different question from whether you are wise, all things considered to accept the deal.


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