If a person confesses to a crime, why do they plead not guilty in court?
It’s a common question and came up last week when Hap Jackson’s 21-year-old grandson confessed, multiple times, to stabbing his 90-year-old grandfather at his Rocky Point home.
Between detailed admissions to investigators, and to the 911 operator he called, plus deputies finding a bloody knife in the kitchen sink, where Willie Jackson said he left it, plus statements Willie Jackson made online immediately following his grandfather’s death, it’s reasonable to think that he did it.
But when he got into court, he pleaded not guilty. What gives?
First thing to understand, said Bremerton defense attorney Tom Weaver, is the difference between “innocent” and “not guilty.”
Not guilty can mean innocent – as people are presumed innocent until found guilty – but in essence, pleading not guilty sets into motion the process where attorneys can review the case. Otherwise, once a plea is accepted, the next step is sentencing.
Defendants may be suffering some sort of mental illness, Weaver said, and that has to checked out. They may have been compelled to make the incriminating statements. There are the rare cases where police simply make up a confession. Then there are cases when people make false confessions.
When a defendant enters their plea — the hearing where this is done is called an arraignment — often defense attorneys only have the charging document — called a probable cause statement — which is sort of an outline of the case against a defendant. Prosecutors ultimately have to turn over all the evidence gathered by investigators, a process called discovery, but that can involve a lot of information, interview transcripts, medical documents, reports, etc.
“Pleading not guilty allows the time to do those things,” Weaver said.
In fact, it’s not unusual for a judge to enter a not guilty plea on behalf of a defendant, or in some cases, simply decline to accept a guilty plea at arraignment.
When it comes to serious cases, like murder, it would be extremely rare for a judge to accept a guilty plea at an early appearance.
“Legally, you have the right to plead guilty at arraignment,” said Chief Deputy Prosecutor Chad Enright. “But it is a qualified right.”
In cases where a person is charged with aggravated first-degree murder, state law prevents them from pleading guilty for 30 days after arraignment, Weaver said.
The judge – whose job is to protect a defendant’s rights, lest the case be returned to their courtroom on appeal – has to make an independent determination that the plea is voluntary. They also have to make sure that a defendant understands the nature of the charges, possible consequences and that they are giving up their right to a trial and to appeal. Enright said at arraignment there usually hasn’t been enough time to accomplish all that.
In some cases, for low level offenses, a judge may accept the plea. And in others, where a defense attorney is thinking strategically and advises his or her client to plead to a lower degree of a crime to ensure prosecutors won’t get the chance to ratchet it up, Enright said a judge may accept a guilty plea. However, it’s likely the defense attorney would need to go through the checklist, telling the judge that the defendant had been properly informed and the attorney had a complete understanding of the investigation and was able to competently advise the defendant.
“I can’t recall seeing that happen, but hypothetically I can think of a circumstance like that,” Enright said.
To illustrate how entering a not guilty plea can be a formality, Weaver related an anecdote from his time as an intern for the Washington D.C. public defender’s office. A shoplifting suspect was brought in front of a judge for a very brief arraignment, the legal system’s equivalent of speed dating. The defendant explained to the judge that she was a tourist, she had shoplifted and she lived in Minnesota. It would be extremely expensive to travel back and forth and she just wanted to plead guilty, take her lumps and get on with her life.
When the defendant stopped talking the judge looked past her and asked, “Whose case is this?”
A lawyer in the background piped up: “I’m sorry, your honor, we plead not guilty.”