I wonder what percent of people who say they're guilty really aren't...What's your guess?
You know, it happens. False confessions exist, as do false guilty pleas. Some of the people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence actually made confessions when they were arrested, for a variety of reasons, perhaps it was coerced or they were naive or it was a My Cousin Vinny -style "I killed the clerk?" confession.
As far as guilty pleas, I wouldn't say that it happens a lot, but I know that it happens. I see it particularly where defendants are offered time served if they plead guilty or, in the alternative, they will be held on bail if they want to wait for a trial. And that can takes months or longer.
I also see it in the context of illegal immigrants - pleading guilty and walking out of the courtroom immediately means escaping the long arm of ICE, waiting a few months in the jail might mean having your status questioned. In the end, a criminal records makes the non-citizen more deportable, but someone who is here is pretty much deportable anyway, so why make it easier by waiting for the ICE agent to show up?
And it's not always about jail time. I had a case just last week, where my client told me that he "didn't do it," and came to court every month for months waiting for his trial. And I knew, no matter how it shook out, that we had a good shot at trial. And, worse case scenario, he was probably facing probation and some fines.
Recently, though, my client lost his job. Last week, he got hired for a new job. He told them that he could start the day after we had court. So, he asked me, "Can you just work out the best possible plea for me today? I won't be able to keep taking off work at my new job." I explained to him that he had consistently told me he was innocent, and that I thought we had a good shot at winning at trial, and that to plead guilty he'd have to "admit his guilt" to the judge.
And he told me, "I just can't afford to lose this job. I just need to get this over with." It was his fourth or fifth day spent in court.
I went to the prosecutor to work out a plea. And I said to him, "Look, I don't think my guy did it. But he wants to get this over with." I laid out the evidence I thought the prosecutor would have at trial, I laid out the evidence I would have, some of which I had been saving for trial. I think the prosecutor recognized that this was working out well, and offered my client just a fine, no time on probation.
So, he pleded guilty, "admitted" his guilt.
It's kind of a weird thing, because of course I'm never allowed to lie to the court... but this is kind of a lie, right? I stood next to my client and let him lie and say he did it, after he told me twenty times he didn't do (and had kind of proven it to me).
I guess the cynic would say, "For all you know, he could have been lying when he said he didn't do it, and finally telling the truth when he was pleading guilty." But, really, then why doesn't the reverse work? If my client had told me twenty times he did it, and then I led him through testimony in which he finally claimed that he didn't do it, I would be suborning perjury.
But guilty pleas are what makes our judicial system efficient. So, I guess a little lying is allowed for that purpose only.
The other thing is, people who "did it," in that they did the actions described by the police or other witness, but who probably aren't legally guilty because they didn't have the requisite intent or maybe wouldn't be found guilty at trial because of other facts of the case.
For example, if Senator Larry Craig said "I did what they said I did - I tapped my toe and put my hand under the stall... but I only did it because I was out of toilet paper." Sure, if this was a video camera in the bathroom, he did what they say he did, but would he have a shot at that defense at trial? I think so.
To answer your question, it's hard to put a number on it. Some clients don't tell me their whole story, some clients don't tell me the truth. If I had to guess, maybe I would say somewhere around 10-15% of the people who are pleading guilty are not, in fact guilty.
But that's just a guess. Anyone else want to take a stab at that?