"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"
Almost no innocent characters have ever pled guilty in the history of television, unless they're Taking the Heat
for someone else. If it's just them, though, heck no.
When a Law Procedural
plot involves an innocent defendant, there will almost invariably be a point where the case will be stacked horribly against them, and they will be offered a deal by the DA. Something like, "Wendell, we can't win this. Your car was found at the scene of the crime, forty eyewitnesses are positive it was you, it sure does look like you on the security footage, and the jury are apparently collaborating on a book called Burn in Hell, Wendell Spatz, You Guilty Guilty Scumbag
. The DA says if we plead guilty you'll be out in three days, and you'll also get a week in the Bahamas with Scarlett Johansson. Plead now and they'll throw in a set of steak knives."
To which the defendant will give an adamant reply: "I won't say I'm guilty."
That's it! End of discussion! No negotiations! No pragmatism! Admit to something he didn't do? Why, he'd rather be eaten alive by cockroaches!
This could be a Justified Trope
, if the defendant has previously been established as a rigorously honest person who stakes his/her personal integrity on Will Not Tell a Lie
, especially under threat of punishment, but mostly such shows don't bother.
Another reason for this to be justified
is that having a conviction on your record can really mess up your day. Even though you only spent three days in prison, you're still a convicted criminal for the rest of your life. Trying to apply for jobs, loans, and things like that gets a lot
So even if you're not idealistic, you might still decide that you're better off taking the chance of proving your innocence. Of course, in the kind of extreme case described above, that doesn't make quite as much sense.
Which is all, of course, a way of setting up the standard Lawyer Must Win Against Inconceivable Odds plot.
The version of this which actually exists in the world of criminal law is the plea of nolo contendere
("I do not wish to contend"), more commonly known as No Contest - entered when the defendant will accept the sentence but will not enter a guilty plea. Not accepted in all cases and jurisdictions.
- Used almost word for word by one of the accused Marines in A Few Good Men.
- Although this is an atypical example: The two Marines did do the actions they're on trial for, but Corporal Dawson refuses to plead guilty since he believes they were following the legitimate orders of their commander.
Dawson: If a court decides that what we did was wrong, then I'll accept whatever punishment they give. But I believe I was right sir, I believe I did my job, and I will not dishonor myself, my unit, or the Corps so I can go home in SIX MONTHS!!! ...Sir.
- A notable exception are Tango and Cash in Tango and Cash.
- The aerobics lady from Legally Blonde is also an exception.
- Braveheart: Captured by the English crown and convicted for leading the Scots in rebellion, William Wallace is informed that he will receive a swifter death if he apologizes to King Edward. Wallace refuses: "Never in my life did I swear loyalty to him."
- Averted in Con Air: Poe pleads guilty to murder, following his attorney's advice, but it doesn't make much sense how the odds could possibly be so stacked against him when it was clearly self-defense in a bar-brawl against four guys.
- In the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Tyrion is urged to falsely confess to Joffrey's murder, on the grounds that he will be sent to the Wall and allowed to live out his days as a member of the Night's Watch rather than executed. Despite the evidence stacked firmly against him, he refuses to confess, since it would brand him as guilty of not only regicide, but kinslaying, which is seen as one of the most detestable crimes in the medieval society in which he lives—and more to the point, is seen as particularly detestable by him (having sacrificed so much and suffered so much abuse in the name of his family). The fact that nobody believes in his innocence, in addition to his horrible treatment throughout the series, is what causes him to eventually kill his father, ironically making him a kinslayer in truth.
- Averted in the first book by Ned Stark, one of the few characters in the series from whom you might expect this kind of Honor Before Reason act, who falsely confesses to treason to keep his children safe.
- In his Apology Socrates refuses to plead guilty, even under the risk of losing his life.
- At least one episode of Law & Order featured a defendant who reluctantly pled guilty to a murder that he is later exonerated of. The twist was that his lawyer was crooked and strong-armed him into taking the plea deal for a bribe from the actual guilty party. As a rule, though, most defendants on the show will plea out once enough evidence piles up against them, but usually not until they've gone to trial.
- In one case a Mafia boss takes an Alford plea when he's accused of putting out a successful hit on an Assistant District Attorney - specifically saying he didn't order the hit, but that the DA has enough to convict him at trial. Afterwards, the mobster tells McCoy that he should have known the truth because the rules he's followed in the family have always been "No cops, no DA's."
- Happens all the time in The Practice.
- In one episode, the defendant reluctantly agrees to plead guilty (while still privately denying guilt), after the jury is done deliberating. The plea is accepted, and then Bobby discovers that the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty.
- In an episode of NYPD Blue, a young wannabe gangsta cops to shooting someone but refuses to plead to any charge. He was convinced since he shot the wrong person, the charges didn't apply to him.
- In The X-Files, Mulder does this in the series finale. He's up for murdering a man who cannot die (because he's a Super Soldier). He knows that it's all a ploy to get rid of him and the Truth and that the guy isn't really dead, and therefore refuses to plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit. It doesn't help that he is tortured in a brainwashing attempt and endures a Kangaroo Court. Even after being sentenced to death by lethal injection, he refuses to plead guilty or recant his knowledge of the Truth.
- In Bangkok Hilton, Kat is offered the chance to plead guilty for possession of the heroin that her smuggler boyfriend hid in her camera case, which would result in a life sentence. She refuses, despite being told that if she's found guilty of trafficking, it's a mandatory death sentence.
- The Salem witch trials, mentioned below, are depicted in The Crucible, where the question of whether to save himself by giving in to the Insane Troll Logic of the witch hunters is the main conflict for the protagonist.
- Ace Attorney:
- In case 2 of Justice For All, Phoenix is insistent on getting Maya a complete acquittal. This appears to be a rather suicidal move, as doing so forfeits her the ability to plead justifiable homicide, which the DA has all but proven. Phoenix explains that if he allowed Maya to plead justifiable self defense, that would still be admitting she did it, which would ruin her reputation and career. Phoenix believes Maya didn't do it, and based on what Mia told him about spirit channeling, he has proof. (It would never hold up in court, but it was enough to convince Phoenix that Maya absolutely could not have killed Grey.)
- Pretty much all of Phoenix Wright in general. If a client is pleading innocent, then you'd better believe they're innocent. If they're pleading guilty, then they're either covering for someone or believe they did it, even when in truth they didn't. Never does Phoenix have a client who's actually guilty, and he seems totally aware of that, refusing to allow them to plead guilty no matter what.
- Subverted in the fourth case of Justice for All: When asked if he killed the victim, the defendant "truthfully" tells Phoenix that he didn't. He just hired someone else to do it, which makes him as guilty as if he'd done it himself. If you get the good ending, Phoenix's client switches to a guilty plea, since walking free would mean living in fear of his hitman killing him in revenge one day.
- Case five of the first game is also an exception: the defendant insists that she did it, but Phoenix is convinced otherwise. He is, of course, correct.
- Real Life Example: In the Salem witch trials, those accused were given the option to confess to witchcraft, which would guarantee their life. Many, such as Rebecca Nurse, didn't take this option, even with the alternative being death, confiscation of all property, excommunication, and improper burial all at once.
- The problem was that entering a guilty plea lost all your property as well as the excommunication and whatnot, and it also entailed signing a confession which would be used to prosecute your family and friends.
- One man accused of witchcraft was "motivated" by being pressed between two flat stones, with heavier stones placed on top. When given the choice to confess (death and excommunication) or accuse the church leaders of blasphemy (death and confiscation of property [depriving his family]), he reportedly yelled, "More Weight!"
- Interestingly enough, the exact opposite was true for Swedish witch trials, at least during the first waves. Only people who confessed were executed, since they were afraid that a guilty person who hadn't confessed and gotten absolution before death would haunt the living. However most people accused didn't know this, which was used against them in the hopes that they would believe that confessing would save them from execution. The first woman sentenced to death for witch craft in Sweden was known as Stor-Märet, and she was brought to the execution site, blindfolded and had her head positioned for beheading. Stor-Märet insisted that she was not guilty and was not executed. However her luck didn't last too long, as she was tried again later on during a stage of the witch trials where refusing to admit guilt didn't save you, and that time around she was beheaded.
- In David Simon's Book Homicide: A Year in The Killing Streets, he claims that convicting innocent men is unlikely unless lawyers convince them to accept a plea bargain.
- There's also a plea of "No Contest" or "nolo contendere," where the defendant (generally not in a murder trial) is doing nothing more than saying "The evidence is so stacked against me, I'm not going to fight it anymore... but I still maintain that I'm innocent."
- Often assumed for traffic violations.
- Related is the "Alford plea," where a defendant explicitly pleads guilty to a crime, but otherwise professes their innocence (ie: "I'll agree with your argument that I did it, but at the same time I want you to know that I really didn't."). It's basically a plea of Not What It Looks Like. Alfords are rare as hell, and with pretty good reason...
- Most recently, the so-called "West Memphis 3" were permitted to enter an Alford Plea to charges that they murdered 3 boys in 1993. Two of the three defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, while the third was given a death sentence. All had maintained their innocence (and evidence and later events revealed massive amounts of misconduct by police, prosecutors and jurors), but agreed to the plea as the state was prepared to carry out the death sentence imposed by the original jury.
- To take it further, people refusing to cooperate with a trial occasionally also refuse to invoke the Fifth Amendment on the principle that, since the relevant clause protects against self-incrimination, this would amount to an admission that whatever they'd be saying would be incriminating. In this case the point isn't just "I didn't commit the crime you're accusing me of," but "The thing you're accusing me of isn't even a crime." The House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into communism in The Fifties featured some famous incidents of this (and a lot of subsequent indictments for contempt of Congress).
- This is also the reason many people refuse to accept pardons after they've been convicted.