If you committed a crime and got away with it, what would it take for you to turn yourself in?
Recently I had my first case where my client's crime only came to light when he had a change in heart and confessed. In his case, it's unlikely that anyone would have even known that a crime was committed, much less that he was the guilty party, if he hadn't decided to come clean.
I surveyed other lawyers in my office and found only one who had seen such a case. She told me that many years ago, she had gotten a phone call from a man. The man had gotten her name because she had represented his brother previously, and he felt he needed to speak to a lawyer. He had been involved in a hit and run accident years earlier. He had essentially gotten away with it. Apparently, no one got his license plate and he waited months, eventually years, for the police to come knocking on his door. He finally decided that he couldn't live with the guilt any longer.
The lawyer did some research and found that no one had died in the accident, and, therefore, the statute of limitations had run. Still, she advised her client against turning himself in, but the client persisted and, ultimately they went to the police department together.
The police took his statement, released him, did some research, and ultimately contacted him and let him know that no charges would be brought because of the statute of limitations.
The man asked, then, if he could have the contact information for the victim so that he could try to make some reparations. Ultimately, according to the lawyer, they contacted the family, but the family wasn't interested in anything more than an apology.
None of the other attorneys that I spoke to, though, have had similar stories. So, it seems as though it's rather rare that someone who gets away with a crime later turns themselves in. Or, perhaps it's rare that these cases are prosecuted.
In my case, my client got away with stealing from someone for quite a while. They never noticed, but he eventually stopped. A few months later, he decided to confess and offered to pay back the money he had taken. Unfortunately for him, the statute of limitations hadn't run and the victim decided to contact the police.
My client was very interesting in that he was so resigned to whatever punishment was coming his way. It wasn't a large sum of money, it was only charged as a misdemeanor, he didn't have any criminal record, so I was certain that I could get him a decent plea bargain. But my client kept telling me that he was willing to go to prison, if that's what he had to do. (It didn't come to that.)
Which leads me to a few questions...
First, for the other criminal defense practitioners, are these cases as uncommon as they appear to be? How many cases like this have you seen? Is there any fear of false confessions? If a person came to you and wanted to turn himself in, would you ask for corroborating evidence? What advice would you give to someone who wanted to turn themself in?
Second, to everyone, do you think that someone should be given preferential treatment because they confessed their crime? Should they be offered a better plea bargain because they saved the state the time and expense of investigating the crime? (Although, in the former case, of the hit and run, it appears that the police did investigate but did not have enough information to solve the case.) But what about in the latter case, where even the victim was unknowing and may have remained unknowing if my client hadn't confessed?