For the first time, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that people who plead guilty to crimes may challenge their convictions if new evidence of their innocence emerges.
The court ruled Friday in a 4-3 decision in the case of Jacob L. Schmidt, who pleaded guilty in 2007 of sexually abusing his 14-year-old half-brother the year before. Years later, in 2014, Schmidt's half-brother began telling others that the abuse never occurred.
The court said last week that Schmidt's case should be returned to the district court in Woodbury County, which is now allowed to consider the new evidence of Schmidt's innocence.
"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," Justice David Wiggins wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel.
The ruling is "definitely the first time that the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized the actual innocence claim," said Brian Farrell, a law professor at the University of Iowa. Farrell is also co-founder and president of the board of directors of the Innocence Project of Iowa, which wrote an amicus brief supporting Schmidt's appeal.
That makes Iowa one of about 14 states in the country to recognize such claims, said Farrell, who called the ruling "an 8 or 9 on a 10-point scale of significance."The full opinion is here.
Of particular note is the Court's discussion of the phenomenon of defendants who plead guilty despite their innocence, which begins on page 14 of the opinion. From that analysis:
A plea does not weed out the innocent. Rather, a plea is an explicit agreement [footnote omitted] between the prosecutor and the defendant that “establishes a ‘going rate.’ ” John L. Kane, Plea Bargaining and the Innocent, The Marshall Project (Dec. 26, 2014, 1:05 PM), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2014/12/26/plea-bargaining-and-the-innocent [https://perma.cc/R5FU-Y3T4]. Specifically, “[t]he anticipated sentence is the central concern in the negotiation[,]” but “[t]he problem . . . is that both innocent and guilty defendants are placed in the same pot and the goal is to achieve the appearance of justice, not the realization of it.” Id.; see also Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134, 144, 132 S. Ct. 1399, 1407 (2012) (“In today’s criminal justice system . . . the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.”). Pleading guilty does not automatically mean the defendant is actually guilty. Sometimes, an innocent defendant is choosing the lesser of two evils: pleading guilty despite his or her actual innocence because the odds are stacked up against him or her, or going to trial with the risk of losing and the prospect of receiving a harsher sentence.
Innocent defendants may also plead guilty in the face of pressure from prosecutors and even their own defense counsels. Today, “our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight.” Jed S. Rakoff, Why Innocent People Plead Guilty, N.Y. Rev. Books (Nov. 20, 2014). Behind these closed doors, prosecutors have broad discretion: “the prosecutor-dictated plea bargain system, by creating such inordinate pressures to enter into plea bargains, appears to have led a significant number of defendants to plead guilty to crimes they never actually committed.” Id.; see also Innocence Project, Why Are People Pleading Guilty to Crimes They Didn’t Commit? (Nov. 25, 2015), https://www.innocenceproject.org/why-are-people-pleading-guilty-to-crimes-they-didnt-commit/ [https://perma.cc/3CEX-WEW2].The dissenting justices argue that this rule may lead to a flurry of new claims that disturb earlier guilty pleas. Even if these claims arise, the burden they create is likely outweighed by the possibility that some of those earlier guilty pleas were entered into by innocent defendants. (For the intricate calculations involved in these determinations, see N Guilty Men by Alexander Volokh).
Moreover, the need for new claims may be reduced if prosecutors take this new rule to heart. While one hopes that even without the Court's ruling, prosecutors would stay true to their roles as "minister[s] of justice and not simply . . . advocate[s]," this rule may prompt prosecutors to ensure that negotiated pleas are on solid factual footing to minimize the probability of an innocence-based challenge in the future.