The guilty plea: ultimate protection for the innocent: The searching dialogue between judge and defendant — intended to get it right — is as magnificent as it is mundane.


By the time most children finish high school civics, they can tell you that the three bedrock principles on which our system of justice rests are equal justice under law, the presumption of innocence and the right to remain silent and not be compelled to testify against oneself. While these certainly deserve their position as core tenets of our system of justice, venture into any courtroom on any day and you will be more likely to encounter a much more overlooked, but for my money, no less awe-inspiring or bedrock display of our judicial values at work — the guilty plea.

When an individual is accused of a crime, he or she has two choices. He can plead not guilty, proceed to trial and make the government prove its case against him with all of the constitutional protections afforded to a defendant who claims innocence. The other option is to plead guilty, admit liability for the offense, accept the lawful punishment meted out and move on. When a defendant decides to plead not guilty, no questions are, or can be, asked by the court as to the legitimacy of that plea. It is simply an unquestioned right.

But when a defendant chooses to admit her guilt to a crime as charged by the government, something much different happens — something most people don't stop to consider. When a defendant asserts her guilt, the entire judicial process comes to a halt. In our system, no one has a right to plead guilty, to unilaterally declare oneself guilty of a crime. A defendant can express her desire to plead guilty to a criminal charge, but only a judge can accept a guilty plea, and that can happen only after a searching dialogue between the judge and the defendant probing the basis, background, reasoning and rationale for the defendant's decision to make the plea.

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