Back to Summaries

The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem

Type of Source
Law Review
Lucian E. Dervan, Vanessa A. Edkins
103 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 1
Publication Year


This research article discusses the history of plea bargaining, examines the impact of the trial penalty and the issue of false pleas of guilty by the innocent, and describes a new psychological deception study that establishes the prevalence of false pleas by the innocent. In the psychological deception study, students were falsely accused of cheating and then offered a “plea bargain.” In this real, as opposed to hypothetical, bargaining paradigm, 89.2% of the participants who had cheated accepted the deal. 56.4% of the participants who had not cheated falsely confessed in return for the benefits of the “plea bargain.” The research reveals that guilty participants are more likely to plead guilty than innocent defendants. The research also illustrates that a significant number of innocent participants are willing to falsely admit guilt in return for a reduced punishment. The article concludes by considering whether plea bargaining under the Brady Supreme Court standard from 1970 remains constitutional given these research findings.

Key Quote

In our research, more than half of the study participants were willing to forgo an opportunity to argue their innocence in court and instead falsely condemned themselves in return for a perceived benefit. That the plea-bargaining system may operate in a manner vastly different from that presumed by the Supreme Court in 1970 and has the potential to capture far more innocent defendants than predicted means that the Brady safety valve has failed. Perhaps, therefore, it is time for the Court to reevaluate the constitutionality of the institution with an eye towards the true power and resilience of the plea-bargaining machine. p.97