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, even if minor, 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 harder.
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.
This trope should not be confused with Never My Fault, which, in a context similar to this trope, would be this sort of attitude being held by someone who's actually guilty, far too selfish to cop to it, and far too smug to accept a Plea Bargain.
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.
Compare Insists on Being Suspected.
- A variation in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War. In middle school, Ishigami gets suspended for punching Ogino, a boy who was the boyfriend of a girl he knew. In truth, he was righteously furious because Ogino was a slimeball who planned on cheating on (and releasing sex tapes of) his girlfriend, but Ogino frames it as an attack from a Crazy Jealous Guy. While suspended, the school tells him he's only allowed to come back if he writes an apology letter, essentially admitting that the incident was a simple act of aggression. Ishigami decides to reject the offer, saying that he doesn't want to lie to himself and the school just to have the whole thing over with—and as a result he stayed suspended until the Student Council and Iino vouch for him.
- 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. Not that it matters much — Poe had the bad luck of being assigned a Hanging Judge who refused to grant him mercy either way (the judge's reason to put him in jail, paraphrased: "as a trained soldier, you are a Living Weapon and you must be judged by harsher standards than normal men!").
- 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.
- Legally Blonde: Brooke Windham insists that she didn't murder her husband, and tells her lawyers that if they try to make her plead guilty she won't do it. Once Elle Woods takes over as the primary lawyer she's able to prove that Brooke really is innocent because her stepdaughter is the actual murderer.
- A notable exception are Tango and Cash in Tango and Cash.
- In his Apology, Socrates refuses to plead guilty, even under the risk of losing his life.
- Basically every one of Mickey Haller's clients. Probably because it wouldn't be any fun to read a book about someone making a plea agreement. However, this does not mean that they're ACTUALLY not guilty.
- In The Sleeping Beauty Killer, Casey could've taken a plea deal for the death of her fiance and been out of prison in six years, which both her lawyer and her parents urged her to do given the overwhelming evidence against her. However, Casey insisted on pleading not guilty and going through a jury trial, saying she could never falsely admit to killing the man she loved. Even after being convicted of manslaughter, Casey has continued to protest her innocence. She's eventually vindicated.
- A Song of Ice and Fire:
- 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 the third book in the 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.
- 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.
- Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds refuses a plea deal when arrested for murder because a conviction would prevent them from working for the FBI.
- In the CBS Mini Series Gone In The Night, Based on a True Story of the abduction and murder of Jaclyn Dowaliby, her mother and stepfather are relentlessly interrogated and at one point, are outright told to confess so that the DA will take it easier on them. They refuse.
- Law & Order:
- At least one episode 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."
- 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.
- A variation in Porridge: Long-time convict Blanco is granted parole but bitterly refuses to accept it, insisting that he was wrongly convicted all along and wants a pardon instead.
- The Practice: It happens frequently.
- 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 two cases, prisoners who maintained they're innocent refused to say that they were guilty in hopes of gaining parole. One time the parole board granted it anyway, which they noted was probably the first time that had happened (since it's required that a prisoner confess generally as part of taking responsibility). However, in the second case he was denied and had to wait until DNA exonerated him. This is a real thing, called the innocent prisoner's dilemma.
- When They See Us: All five of the boys rejected a plea deal from the DA because they wouldn't plead guilty to something they didn't do. Yusef and Kevin categorically refuse to say they raped anyone for the mandatory sex offenders group as well. Korey refuses to lie at his parole hearings by saying he committed the crimes which he's been convicted of, despite it meaning he'll stay in prison.
- 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.
- 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.
- At the end of Parade, Leo Frank is told by the lynch mob that they'll release him and spare his life if he admits to the murder of Mary Phagan. Leo refuses to do so and they lynch him.
- Ace Attorney:
- Pretty much all of the Phoenix Wright trilogy, 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.
- The exception that proves the rule is Yanni Yogi in the DL-6 incident. Instead of fighting for a full acquittal, he took his lawyer's suggestion of pleading temporary insanity. It worked, but it also destroyed his reputation, lost him his job, and drove his fiance to suicide. Fifteen years later, he kills the lawyer in revenge and frames the man he believes was the real killer—Miles Edgeworth.
- 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 prosecutor 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.)
- In case 4 of Justice For All, this is subverted. 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, i.e. technically, he didn't do the deed. 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.
- In the third case of The Great Ace Attorney 2, Ryunosuke butts heads with his own client, Albert Harebrayne, on this. While he protests the charge of murder, Albert is content to accept charges of wrongful death, more motivated to preserve his hypothesis and integrity as a scientist than his freedom. Ryunosuke, however, is insistent on a full acquittal, which he aims to get by arguing that the invention which allegedly killed the victim was a sham. Absolutely horrified by this, Albert winds up testifying against himself until Ryunosuke successfully convinces Albert that his engineer has swindled him and should be further investigated.
- Reversed in Justice League Unlimited. John Stewart is taken to trial where he is accused of destroying a planet. His friends all believe he's innocent, of course, but he pleads guilty without a second thought. Turns out, of course, that he was framed, and had been successfully fooled by the plot as well. The crux of the realization was that the moon of the planet was still orbiting the debris, instead of having flown off into space due to lack of gravitational pull.
- Spinelli does this in the Recess episode "The Trial" until she gets the guts to go up into the stands herself.
- Bart Simpson "confessed" to Lisa stealing textbooks in an episode of The Simpsons. An example of the aforementioned Taking the Heat exception.
- 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, Giles Corey, famously refused to plead either way. In those days, the law said that a person could not be tried without entering a plea first. Those who refused were "motivated" to by being pressed between two flat stones, with heavier stones placed on top. When given the choice to plead guilty (he'd live, but be deprived of all his property, thus leaving his family in poverty) or not guilty (he would be tried, inevitably convicted, put to death, and lose his property anyway), he reportedly yelled, "More weight!" It was the only way to leave his family with anything. Merely being accused of witchcraft had sealed his fate one way or the other. It was also, of course, a way of going out while Defiant to the End.
- 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 witchcraft 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.
- 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.
- 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 (almost always in minor cases, as this plea is often not allowed for serious felonies) 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: "I choose not to dispute the charges on the basis of not wanting to waste the time doing so, but I'm not going to say that I did it."
- Related is the "Alford plea," where a defendant maintains their innocence while acknowledging that they're all but guaranteed to be convicted if it goes to trial; it's officially recorded as a guilty plea, but unlike a standard guilty plea, the defendant doesn't have to go on the record saying they did it. It's basically a plea of not what it looks like. Alfords are rare as hell; they're typically only offered/accepted in extraordinary situations. Also, they are not allowed in Indiana, West Virginia, New Jersey or in courts of the United States Armed Forces.
- 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) and the evidence was starting to support this, but the state didn't want to fully throw out the case in case they were wrong, so the boys were offered an Alford plea with a sentence of time served. All three accepted as it allowed them to be released without having to say they'd done it (their reason for refusing plea bargains with standard guilty pleas).
- This plea also took down investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s, which stemmed from junk bond king Michael Milken's insider trading activities. Moments before they were indicted, Drexel accepted an Alford for six felony counts of stock fraud and a fine of $650 million.
- 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 '50s featured some famous incidents of this — and a lot of subsequent indictments for contempt of Congress, since, because they were not accused of any crimes, legally they couldn't plead the Fifth.
- This is also the reason many people refuse to accept pardons after they've been convicted.
- To get parole, a prisoner usually must confess their crime. For an innocent person, this can be unacceptable. So this puts them in what people call the "innocent prisoner's dilemma": admit guilt and get parole, but at the cost of losing any chance of being exonerated, since this would be used against them in any attempt to get their conviction overturned. Since it has been believed that prisoners who deny guilt are more dangerous as they haven't faced what they did, this requirement came to be standard. However, actual psychological studies show just the opposite: prisoners who freely admit guilt are far more likely to reoffend, since they're comfortable with their illegal acts. Those who deny it are either innocent or not happy with what they did, and thus less dangerous. As just one of many prisoners who had faced this, Michael Morton (who'd been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife) was doing life but then offered a chance at parole in 2010 as his attorneys fought to overturn his conviction. Morton refused, since as stated above here a condition of parole would be expressing remorse for his crime, and was thankfully exonerated later.
- This was a critical piece of the New York case of Kalief Browder, who sat in jail for three years awaiting trial on a theft charge due to numerous procedural delays (he had been on probation at the time of the arrest so was not eligible for bail). At several points along this process, judges and prosecutors offered him plea bargains with generous terms (including, near the end of the three years, a "time served" sentence that would have allowed for his immediate release), but Browder refused the offers because he would have had to plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit. (When the case finally did go to trial, it was promptly dismissed due to lack of evidence, and Browder was released; however, the years he spent in jail ruined Browder's life, leaving him with major mental trauma as well as derailing his possible future, and he would ultimately die by suicide just two years later.) Browder's case has since been cited many times by advocates of pre-trial detention reform.