Strong-arming innocent people into guilty pleas proves justice system lacks justice

Whenever the press declares that a court defendant "admitted" to a crime because he or she agreed to a plea deal, in reality the individual is often not guilty. Most people recognize this, especially after the Fairbanks Four fiasco. At the federal level, 97 percent of convictions are from plea bargains -- not trials -- many of which are the result of enormous pressure placed on the accused regardless of guilt or innocence. It also sadly occurs at the state level.

Defendants plead for a variety of reasons and not always because they're guilty. A common one is fear of facing a potential bogus trial and anguish from an erroneous conviction and lengthy prison term. Even if a person is guilty, it's sometimes over minor issues no worse than a misdemeanor or infraction. Yet prosecutors are known to trump up charges and engage in character assassination as if the accused were on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Consequently, many poor souls sit in jail cells over violations that warrant no more than a small fine or, at most, probation. And there are others suffering the same fate who've doing nothing criminal other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This may seem preposterous but I know because of my own personal experience after being targeted by an unscrupulous government that concealed crucial evidence and twisted basic facts.

Ex-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presided over a Department of "Justice" seemingly more focused on convictions using coerced plea deals than the truth through an honest trial process. Alexander Cohen of The Atlas Society explained how Holder's prosecutors tried mightily to undermine a defendant's fundamental right to a trial by threatening them with huge prison terms unless they would grovel, beg for mercy and agree to plead out. One man, Aaron Swartz, killed himself rather than face the awful choice of either a half century in jail if he lost at trial or a plea deal admitting to something he didn't do.

I faced a severe dilemma when offered my choice of poison after being bullied by FBI agents and prosecutors -- either agree to their demands or risk a second trial where smooth-talking government attorneys may once again con unsuspecting jurors by hiding evidence or manipulating and intimidating witnesses to account for a weak case. It was if a sledgehammer was held over my head.

If Attorney General Holder was genuinely interested in seeking justice against those accused, he would have intervened instead of allowing abusive prosecutors to run roughshod over innocent people from an agency responsible for wrongly jailing literally thousands through the years, according to Cohen. The U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate, thanks in large part to politicians trying to appear "tough on crime" who've passed a plethora of laws that arm dishonest prosecutors with an array of means to harass good people. The numbers of imprisoned Americans are now higher than 30 years ago despite crime at historic lows.

Moreover, the feds and state spend vast taxpayer dollars on prosecutions (they blew through several million hounding me over an alleged bribe centered around a ludicrous $100 for Easter eggs). Yet a defendant is frequently strapped financially and can't hire the lawyer he or she trusts or is confident will competently represent them. Prosecutors know this and exploit it to their full advantage.

Why do prosecutors browbeat and plunder defendants at trials and one-sided plea deals? It's often because of a selfish and even political zeal to secure a conviction and a narcissistic desire to destroy lives, as I experienced. You know we have a broken system when our judiciary, which is supposed to be run by honest public servants with honorable intentions, fails to treat you with integrity and cares little if you're innocent. The system has evolved into one of prosecutor power over the accused where their duty to seek justice and not merely a conviction is frequently ignored. The Fairbanks Four experienced this first-hand.


Vic Kohring is a former seven-term legislator and resident of Wasilla.

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Vic Kohring

Vic Kohring represented Wasilla, Chugiak and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in the Alaska State Legislature. He was first elected in 1994 and resigned in 2007.