Guilty or Not Guilty? How the pandemic is affecting guilty pleas

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Springfield, Mo. — Researchers and Criminal Trial Attorney’s are noticing a change in the criminal justice system.

“There are many defendants in jail right now that want to go to trial,” Criminal Trial Attorney Dee Wampler said. “About 900 of them in Greene County alone.”

The issue is getting those defendants to trial without a delay. Wampler has seen several trials pushed back due to COVID-19.

“Some of the courts it is required you have a mask and some of them you do not have to have a mask,” Wampler said.

Mask requirements can leave jurors feeling uneasy, especially those at high risk.

“I’ve got a number of clients that are 50 and older,” Wampler said. “It is affecting them because people their age don’t want to serve on the jury, which leaves cases delayed.”

Wampler said the jury has to be a cross-section of the community. This means jurors have to represent of all ages. If there isn’t a fair cross-section, it violates the due process clause. At the same time, those involved in the trial can also get COVID.

“I have cases that are getting ready to go to trial and the next thing you know, the prosecutor’s secretary gets the virus, or a witness gets the virus,” Wampler said. “I have one case that’s been continued two times because of that.”

Some researchers were curious about the criminal justice system has changed over the pandemic, and decided to complete a study. Missouri State University (MSU) Associate Professor Dr. David Zimmerman has done research about plea bargains.

“95 percent of convictions happen via guilty plea,” Zimmerman said.

He wanted to see if this number had changed once the pandemic hit. A study had 704 adults create a character which was accused of theft. Some were guilty, others were innocent. Their character was stuck in jail because of a previous conviction Some of the court cases were pushed back due to COVID. The character was then offered a plea deal.

“What we found with those measures is that it seems like COVID-19 was more important to the innocent defendants and the guilty defendants,” Zimmerman said. “The defendant can’t make bail for whatever reason or has priors. That was the what we used in this Paradigm and can’t make bail on account of that. They’re sitting around in jail until trial and sometimes plea offers might include time served, which means if you accept the plea, you get out immediately, which can be a luring to defendants and might compel them to plead guilty.”

“The prosecutors are probably more inclined now to make a reasonable plea offer and the defendants are more inclined to their advantage to take a bargain deal, in order to limit the amount of time they’re going to do in jail.”

The study brought to light some other things.

“This particular study and its results along with that other survey study kind of highlight some of the pitfalls of pretrial detention,” Zimmerman said. “In the process of plea bargaining that it might occasionally cause defendants to plead guilty when they might, otherwise not just because of temporal discounting, essentially, that we prefer immediate rewards to distil rewards in the same for punishments.”

Now, some defendants are left with a tough decision to make.

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