To plead or not to plead

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File PhotoAP

HUNDREDS of Donald Trump supporters charged with storming the US Capitol have faced the same choice in the three years since the attack: either admit their guilt and accept the consequences or take their chances on a trial in hopes of securing a rare acquittal.

Those who have who gambled — and lost — on a trial have received significantly longer prison sentences than those who took responsibility for joining the Jan. 6, 2021 attack, an Associated Press review of court records shows.

The AP’s analysis of Capitol riot sentencing data reinforces a firmly established tenet of the US criminal justice system: Pleading guilty and cooperating with authorities carries a substantial benefit when it comes time for sentencing.

″On one hand, the Constitution guarantees the accused a right to a jury trial. It’s a fundamental constitutional right. But the reality is that if you exercise that right ... you’re likely to be punished more severely than you would have been had you pled guilty to the offense,” said Jimmy Gurulé, a University of Notre Dame law professor and former federal prosecutor.

More than 700 defendants have pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the Jan. 6 attack, while over 150 others have opted for a trial decided by a judge or jury in Washington, D.C. It’s no surprise most cases have ended in a plea deal — many rioters were captured on video inside the Capitol and later gloated about their actions on social media, making it difficult for their lawyers to mount much of a defense.

The average prison sentence for a Jan. 6 defendant who was convicted of a felony after a contested trial is roughly two years longer than those who pleaded guilty to a felony, according to the AP’s review of more than 1,200 cases. The data also show that rioters who pleaded guilty to misdemeanors were far less likely to get jail time than those who contested their misdemeanor charges at a trial.

Lawyers for some Jan. 6 defendants who went to trial have complained about what has long been described as a “trial tax”— a longer sentence imposed on those who refused to accept plea deals.

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