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Why Do Guilty People Plead Not Guilty?

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on February 29, 2012 6:02 AM

Mark Berndt, an elementary school teacher in Miramonte, Calif., recently pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing 23 students in his classroom. But authorities have photos depicting the abuse. They have testimony from current and past students. It seems like a slam-dunk case.

So why did Berndt plead as he did? Why do guilty people plead not guilty?

In one word: strategy.

To start, defendants have a Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. They don't have to plead guilty -- even when they are. Instead, it is up to the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime.

When the prosecutor has little evidence, it makes sense to plead not guilty. The defendant may have a very high chance of being acquitted at trial. But what about when the prosecutor has a lot of evidence, such as with Mark Berndt?

There are still very good reasons why guilty people plead not guilty in these types of situations. For one, it may force the prosecutor to offer a deal. Trials are expensive, even when the evidence is strong. A prosecutor may therefore be inclined to offer a lesser sentence to avoid the expense.

It's also possible the prosecutor's case isn't as strong as it seems. High-profile cases are often overcharged in response to public pressure. There's no reason for a defendant to plead guilty to murder when he's really only guilty of manslaughter.

A defendant may also plan to challenge some key evidence. For example, if the Berndt photos were obtained in violation of the Constitution, they could not be admitted at trial. This could ruin the prosecutor's case, leading to acquittal or fewer charges.

Ultimately, guilty people plead not guilty because it makes sense. They have a right, and their defense attorneys have a duty, to seek the lowest sentence possible.

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