False Guilty Pleas And The Post Office Scandal

‘Why did the post office appellants plead guilty? And Why is this important?’

Innocent people plead guilty to crimes they have not committed. Sometimes they are aware they have not committed a crime. Sometimes they have insufficient information to know whether they have. Of the 39 successful appellants in the Post Office Scandal, 35 had pleaded guilty to at least one charge against them. The appellants, now recognised as innocent, pleaded guilty to charges including theft, fraud, and false accounting.

But why did the appellants plead guilty? And crucially, could the miscarriages of justice have been avoided if the defendants hadn’t felt pressure to plead?

False guilty pleas are not uncommon, and are most documented in the USA. The US National Registry of Exonerations lists 576 cases of defendants who have pled guilty to crimes but have later been exonerated of those crimes. These “false” guilty pleas are perhaps unsurprising in the US plea-bargaining system, where defendants often face compelling incentives to plead (see here for more information). To give an extreme example, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon pleaded guilty to rape and murder in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment after being notified that the prosecution would seek the death penalty against them if they exercised their right to trial. They were exonerated 30 years later when DNA testing showed that they were innocent. Dixon passed away shortly before his official exoneration.

In an article in the Cornell Law Review, my collaborator John Blume and I identified three primary categories of case in which innocent defendants plead guilty in the US – (1) in low-level offences where pleading guilty allows a defendant to get out of jail or avoid spending time in jail (see here, for example), (2) in cases where innocent defendants who are wrongfully convicted win a new trial and pleading guilty allows them to secure immediate or imminent release (see here, for example), and (3) where the sentence a defendant can receive at trial is so much more severe than the sentence they will get if they plead guilty that they plead guilty out of fear (see here, for example).

A line of experimental research has examined guilty pleas in innocent defendants in the US system and confirms that people who are innocent will admit guilt when the right incentives are offered (see here, for example).

But what about England and Wales, isn’t the system here fairer?

The guilty plea system in England and Wales is typically considered fairer and the incentives to plead seem less extreme (see here). The official discount for pleading guilty is a sentence reduction of up to 1/3, given by the judge at sentencing. However, it is important to note that this reduction can make the difference between a custodial and non-custodial sentence and thus can mean people may end up in prison if they go to trial but will not if they plead guilty.

In addition, defendants can have charges against them dropped if they plead guilty, and can sometimes obtain immediate release from custody if they plead guilty (something that has the potential to be very important in the context of current court backlogs).  

Evidence shows that innocent people in England and Wales do plead guilty.

Evidence shows that innocent people in England and Wales do plead guilty. Many of the cases referred to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC initially involved a guilty plea (for more information, see here), and our Miscarriages of Justice Registry provides specific examples. Thomas Smart pleaded guilty to possessing live ammunition following a novelty bullet keyring being found at his home. His conviction was quashed after the Forensic Science Service admitted it had made a mistake and acknowledged that the keyring was not live ammunition. Michael Holliday pled guilty to robbery of a security vehicle on the advice of his lawyer, but his conviction was quashed when evidence showed someone else had committed the offence.  Two of the “Shrewsbury 24” (Graham Roberts and Patrick Butcher) pled guilty and had their convictions quashed nearly fifty years later.

The Post Office Scandal provides a further list of cases in which defendants pleaded guilty when they were not guilty. Josephine Hamilton, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson, Hughie Thomas, Jacqueline McDonald, Allison Henderson, Allison Hall, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Thomas Hedges, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Lynette Hutchings, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Tim Burgess, Pauline Thomsen, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Gillian Howard, David Blakey, Janet Skinner, Seema Misra, Scott Darlington, Peter Holmes, Rubina Shaheen, Pamela Lock, Vijay Parekh, Dawn O’Connell, Carl Page, Mohammed Rasul, and Wendy Buffrey all pleaded guilty to at least one charge against them. Statements suggest that they did this due to the fear of custody (or a longer period in custody) if they contested their guilt at trial.

David Thomas Hedges stated that he pled guilty due to being “petrified of the prospect of jail.” Josephine Hamilton stated that she pled guilty “to avoid prison,” and Wendy Buffrey said she was “advised to plead guilty… to avoid jail.”

But these guilty pleas, while almost always preventing a jail sentence from being imposed, had huge consequences. Many of those convicted were forced to declare bankruptcy (see here and here, for example), some lost their homes (see here and here), and in two cases the convictions were linked to deaths of those convicted (see here and here). And now, it’s become clear that the defendants were not guilty. Evidence against them was a result of a faulty computer system.

Of the 39 sub-postmasters and mistresses acquitted in the recent judgment, only four (Lisa Brennan, Damien Owen, Tracy Felstead, and Harjinder Butoy) refused to plead guilty to any charge.

An important but currently unanswered question is how many sub-postmasters and mistresses had charges brought against them that were dropped when they wouldn’t plead guilty, or that were found insufficient to lead to a conviction by judges or jurors. One important consequence of pleading guilty is that you are convicted when the evidence may not have proved guilt at trial.

Could many of the victims of this miscarriage of justice have avoided conviction, had they not been pressured to plead guilty by the threat of custody and the opportunity to avoid it?

Another important, but perhaps unanswerable, question is whether the problems with the Horizon system and the inadequacy of its data as legal proof might have come to light sooner had it been scrutinized in more full trials.

While it may not be possible to fully answer these questions, the cases certainly highlight many issues with the guilty plea system. Where defendants are threatened with custodial sentences at trial, which they can avoid by pleading guilty, this will lead many innocent defendants to plead guilty. As a result, innocent people are convicted of criminal offences and the guilty plea loses its status as a relatively reliable indicator of guilt. This has devastating consequences for both defendants themselves and the criminal justice system more generally.

Author Dr. Rebecca K. Helm – Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Exeter, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Solicitor in England and Wales, Attorney at Law in New York State, USA.

Follow us on Twitter @ExeterLawSchool @RebeccaKHelm and LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/company/evidence-based-justice-lab

For a list of Dr Helm’s academic publications on guilty pleas, see the publications page of our website: https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/publications/

For more information on our data and research on guilty pleas, see the guilty plea decisions page of our website: https://evidencebasedjustice.exeter.ac.uk/current-research-data/admissions-of-guilt/

For more information on guilty pleas in actual cases in England and Wales, search for guilty plea cases in our miscarriages of justice registry:

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