David J. Celuch
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Relief in the face of “the trial penalty”

Imagine a loved one is arrested on suspicion of a major crime. They are truly innocent in the matter, but witnesses insist it was them. The situation looks bad, and your loved one’s attorney begins to push them to accept a plea deal rather than appear in court. Juries can be swayed by testimony, and the plea bargain comes with 5 years in jail while a court conviction could mean 20-plus. Is it worth it to take the gamble in court?

It is a frightening reality that many people plead guilty due to circumstances just like this. According to Above the Law, a resource for lawyers, fear of receiving harsher sentences at trial has pushed a considerable number of innocent people to accept plea bargains. The article points to data from the NACDL which indicates that now only 3 percent of arrests choose a trial versus 20 percent 30 years ago.

This does not have to be the case. If you have a loved one that chose this type of plea deal and is now serving time, post-conviction relief may be another chance at their freedom.

Post-conviction relief after a plea deal

Post-conviction relief is a second chance for individuals who did not receive fair treatment from the criminal justice system. If your loved one’s appeal is denied, PCR can give them a new trial, modify their sentence and many other resolutions.

It is important to understand that PCR can only occur after an appeal has failed, and most plea bargains cannot be appealed. This rule is in place to keep defendants from waffling between accepting the plea deal and appearing in court. However, if your loved one can show that their original attorney committed misconduct or acted in error when presenting the case, they may have an opportunity to appeal, and receive additional relief should that fail.

Use of intimidation by prosecutors

Prosecutors main job is to convict defendants, and the trial penalty is an extremely effective tool for that. Attorney Toni Messina, author of the Above the Law article, writes that in the roughly 100 cases she has tried, defendants have always suffered a substantially worse punishment than what was offered pre-trial. “In one murder case, an offer was made of 11 years on a plea. After trial, the defendant was sentenced to 40.”

Even if you are innocent, knowing that a jury may be persuaded to sentence you to 40 years of incarceration is extremely intimidating. An 11-year plea bargain may appear attractive at a certain point.

Don’t give up hope if you believe that a loved one was coerced into accepting an unfair plea bargain. Post-conviction relief may be an option. Help them seize the opportunity while they still can.

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