Short Take: Iowa Admits A Legal Fiction

For those unaware, the law has many masters, one of which is finality. It’s not that the issues raised, and their consequences, aren’t extremely serious, but that there must ultimately be conclusions, ends to the debate, the fight, the doubt. One such line happens when a defendant pleads guilty to a crime.

The process varies. In some courts, the defendant is put under oath to admit his guilt. In some, he engages in an allocution, where he is asked to state, in his own words, what he did. The judge may ask a litany of questions to be sure the defendant is pleading of his own free will, not due to coercion or promises about which the court is unaware.

But once done, once the guilty plea has been entered, guilt admitted, that aspect of the case is over. As far as the law is concerned, there is no turning back, no denying that the defendant committed the crime, once he’s pleaded guilty.

Of course, it’s a fiction. No one believes that defendants only plead guilty because they are guilty. Anyone with a clue realizes that there is a lengthy list of reasons, from convenience, fear, despair and money, or myriad personal reasons that only the defendant appreciates. But they pleaded guilty because it seemed like the best option at the time. Perhaps it was. Perhaps they had no other meaningful choice, even if they weren’t guilty at all.

Jacob Schmidt, 17 at the time, [ ] pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2007 to seven years for assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and incest.

In 2014, Schmidt filed a post-conviction petition asking the court to vacate his conviction because he is innocent.

The 14-year-old boy who said Schmidt sexually abused him in 2006 recanted his claim. Schmidt argued the statement by the boy was new evidence.

But Schmidt pleaded guilty, and so he was, as far as the court was concerned. because finality.

A ruling from a closely divided Iowa Supreme Court ruling could upend plea agreements because now a person who already has admitted guilt will be allowed to challenge the conviction by claiming innocence.

Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, in the majority ruling, asks: “What kind of system of justice do we have if we permit actually innocent people to remain in prison? It is time that we refuse to perpetuate a system of justice that allows actually innocent people to remain in prison, even those who profess guilt despite their actual innocence.”

Lest this ruling be viewed as undermining the very concept of a guilty plea, there are a few considerations. First, this is the Iowa Supreme Court, meaning that it doesn’t apply to any other jurisdiction. Second. this was an actual innocence claim based on the recanting of the only evidence against the defendant, and very potent evidence it was. This isn’t merely a contention of “I know I said I did it, but I didn’t do it.”

Still, the dissent raised the obvious problem.

Two justices, Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield, joined by Bruce Zager, wrote dissenting opinions arguing the ruling “upends Iowa law on the finality of guilty pleas,” which had been a long-standing precedent.

There is merit to the dissent’s point, particularly given that the vast majority of cases end in guilty pleas. There is nothing to lose for a defendant who’s copped a plea, obtained the benefit of a negotiated sentence, and then tries to fight the plea through claims of innocence. Will it raise a tidal wave of post-sentence litigation? Will the court be deluged with nonsensical innocence claims? Will no guilty plea be final again?

But as Justice Wiggins says, is a court to simply ignore that an innocent defendant is in prison because he chose the lesser of two evils? As Clark Neilly at Cato vehemently and persistently contends, perhaps the solution isn’t to ignore the concerns of finality, but to address the factors that compel defendants to plead guilty whether they’re guilty or not.

13 thoughts on “Short Take: Iowa Admits A Legal Fiction

  1. John Barleycorn

    It wouldn’t have been that hard to throw in, “it is always. all about the money” in that last paragraph now would it?

    P.S. I know what you are thinking…. A tariff on laminated stakes and matches might balance out the endless escalation in workman’s compensation insurance premiums for investigators and secretaries , but you would be wrong.

  2. James L. Smith

    After guilty pleas and imprisonment Kagonyera and Wilcoxson in Asheville were heard by an Innocence Commission and the defendants exonerated. Because of the immense and unaccountable powers of DAs committing extortion by threatening the death penalty and Brady violations, it’s only fair for the innocent who have pleaded guilty to have a chance at release from the steel trap.

    1. SHG Post author

      And then there’s the “it’s only fair” argument favored by school children and fortune cookie writers everywhere.

  3. Dave

    It seems unlikely to cause a deluge simply because prisoners already routinely claim actual innocence where they are barred from doing so (as in a stand-alone actual innocence claim in a habeas petition). In other words, the deluge is here already. Pro per prisoners tend not to be too discriminating in separating out frivolous claims. And even on direct appeal, where they get a lawyer, there usually are not any actually viable appellate issues, so the issues raised are barely viable at best (and often frivolous) simply because, well, they want to raise SOME issue.

    Still, it is a significant change in that it moves a claim out of the frivolous category into the possibly viable category. That actually makes prosecutors, in defending the conviction, have to do slightly more work, but since they all have their boilerplate to deal with actual innocence claims in other contexts, and because actual new evidence of actual innocence that matters is relatively rare, I really don’t think it will ultimately change much. It will make a different to a handful of defendants, the same way actual innocence claims in other contexts does now. But to the criminal appellate process as a whole, it is just a pebble tossed into a raging river.

    1. Sam Paris

      Maybe prosecutors should do “slightly more work” prosecuting the actually guilty rather than extorting guilty pleas from whatever poor schlub they can nail.

      1. SHG Post author

        Ah, the “actually guilty.” Maybe you can make a list so we know which ones they are, as opposed to the poor schlubs.

  4. Onlymom

    I am with the judge as well. Sorry but innocent should Trump everything.

    Where is the govt’s demand for finality during the second, third, fourth or more retrials. Which are obviously illegal as the prosecutor has failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Otherwise they would have gotten a guilty verdict

    1. SHG Post author

      No doubt the judge will feel great about himself knowing you’re with him, but since it’s not up for popular vote, your validation doesn’t actually matter at all.

      1. KP

        “but since it’s not up for popular vote, your validation doesn’t actually matter at all.”

        You sure boss?? Isn’t it time the old white men moved over and let woke young Moronials shape the world they want to take over??
        One comment here today could be a gigantic influence tomorrow with social media celebs setting demonstrations and lawmakers hiding under their desks!

        Maybe all it will take is a passing but thoughtful comment on SHG to provoke a fairer system…

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