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Plea Bargain

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"I was convicted of a crime I did not commit. I plea-bargained down from the one I actually did."
Rufus T. "Buck" Wild, Icon

Very few attorneys can make a living solely representing innocent people who have been falsely accused of crimes. Perry Mason and Phoenix Wright, for example. But most defense attorneys don't have that luxury. Guilty people are legally entitled to representation too (at least in most modern democracies) and odds are a given lawyer will wind up with at least a few of them as clients.

Now, if the prosecution's case is weak, or you've got a flair for the dramatic, Unconventional Courtroom Tactics and looking for technicalities might win the day. But sometimes the evidence is airtight, the prosecutor is a pro, and the judge has no mercy. At that point, the client's best interest might lie in making a Plea Bargain.

Essentially, the defendant agrees to plead "guilty" to one or more charges, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Often, a lesser charge is agreed to, avoiding a harsher penalty. For example, plea bargaining a felony down to misdemeanor, or an offense that would get the defendant on a "sex offenders" listing down to one that will not. The prosecutor may also recommend a lighter sentence to the judge, usually within the standard range. For instance, crime A is worth 6-9 months, crime B is worth 18-24 months. The accused was originally charged with crime B, but bargains and pleads guilty to crime A, and in exchange, the prosecutor recommends a sentence of 6 months. The judge may choose to give more, but only up to 9 months. Also note that the acceptance of the plea bargain is entirely dependent on the judge: if he or she feels the plea bargain is a gross Miscarriage of Justice (if a first-degree murder is pleaded down to manslaughter, for example), the plea bargain can be rejected. If this happens, expect the judge to rebuke the prosecution. The other side of the coin is the problem with District Attorneys "front loading" the charges and potential sentences against the defendant to encourage a plea bargain. Many defendants who are either innocent or at least believe they have a reasonable chance at being found not guilty at trial plead out anyways — if crime B is worth 5-10 years jail but a plea bargain is available for crime A that allows for 6-9 months jail, many defendants would take the plea even if innocent to avoid the risk of spending 10 years inside.

In some cases, the defendant will be required to testify against other criminals as part of the deal, or to provide other services.

And it's a pretty good deal for the prosecution too, usually. Sure, they probably could have gotten a conviction, but full trials take time, and money, and tie up attorneys who could be working on the next case. It has been pointed out many times that if a sizable number of defendants suddenly refused to plea bargain, it would cause a collapse of the entire legal system, as the government would be unable to hold trials for them all (some have suggested they do this to protest). In the United States, as much as 97% of cases are resolved by plea bargaining.note  Note also this can be subject to Eagleland Osmosis. In most civil law nations, it's simply not possible. Even if you plead guilty, they do a full trial to establish how much time you get. In the other common law nations, it's officially frowned on and officially doesn't happen. Unofficially, it happens all the time, but it's considered very impolite to suggest it. This has been a huge issue at international tribunals. Depending on conditions in the facility a suspect is held in prior to trial, it could also be seen as coercing a confession; criminal justice reforms like those implemented in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and New Jersey in 2017, which feature getting rid of pretrial detention in most cases, are partly aimed at fixing this problem.

With the vastly overcrowded court system, any case which is NOT settled in a plea bargain is one where either the defense feels there is a very good chance to win or the prosecution feels the crime is so bad and has so much publicity they won't.

Because a plea bargain is not nearly as dramatic as a case that goes to trial, the frequency of the two is inverted between Real Life and fiction.

Some dramatic situations that might be seen with a plea bargain:

  • The attorney tries to get one for a client, but the client has the attitude I Won't Say I'm Guilty, forcing a trial to go forward.
  • If the client is innocent, an Amoral Attorney — or an overworked one — may pressure him to do a plea bargain anyway, because the case would be too hard to win, or for less savory reasons.
  • A particularly vile defendant offers a plea bargain that essentially lets him get off scot-free, and the prosecution refuses it.
  • The main story is about someone else's trial, and the person who made a plea bargain testifies against them as part of the deal. Naturally, the second defendant's attorney will cast aspersions on the witness' motivations and veracity.


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     Comic Books 

  • As seen in the page quote, Buck Wild from Milestone Comics' Icon series benefited from one of these.
  • Bloom County parodies this with a plea bargain for the death penalty.
  • John Hartigan from Sin City agrees to a plea bargain so that he could get parole and track down Nancy Callahan, believing that she had been kidnapped.

     Comic Strips 

     Fan Works 
  • In Legacy (Total Drama), the psycho killer pleads down to manslaughter for killing Gwen. It's noted that prosecutors are worried his claim that he only meant to injure the victim might hold up enough to beat a murder charge, and the sentence is moot since he's already serving life for unrelated offenses.
  • Ruined With You: Gabriel Agreste made one with the government so they wouldn't seize his company and his son Adrien would be allowed to run it once he obtained the qualifications required by the company's bylaws.


  • In A Few Good Men, Lt. Dan Kaffee (Tom Cruise's character) has made a career out of skillful plea bargaining, but when he delivers the option to his clients, and instead gets an earful of I Won't Say I'm Guilty, he decides not to on this case once he sees the emotional damage it'd do to them. It's pretty heavily implied that the authorities assigned him to the case with the expectation that he'd plea his clients out, thus preventing the scandalous details of PFC Santiago's death from becoming public.
  • Velma Kelly gets a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Roxie Hart in Chicago.
  • Law Abiding Citizen: A plea bargain given to the wrong party (the actual killer, who sold his patsy down the river) is the motive for Clyde Shelton to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • In The Trials Of Oscar Wilde the title character's lawyer is disgusted when he learns that Wilde lied under oath about being gay (it's the lie that he objects to; he feels like Wilde suckered him into betraying his professional ethics). However, he agrees to defend Wilde against charges of "gross indecency" when he learns that the prosecution is offering plea bargains to male prostitutes in exchange for evidence against Wilde - at the time, this sort of arrangement was absolutely unheard of under English law, and the lawyer feels it's a far worse perversion of justice than Wilde's perjuring himself.
  • The Lincoln Lawyer once pressured a client charged with rape and murder to plead guilty so he'd be sentenced to just 30 years with a chance to obtain a parole after 15 years. That came to bite him hard when he not only learned the client was innocent but he was also defending the actual culprit from an attempted rape charge.
  • Con Air had an illegal usage of a plea bargain: the judge agreed to the bargain, and then reneged on the terms offered to the defendant.
  • Boys on the Side: Holly accepts an offer from the prosecution, pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and having to serve one to two years in prison, possibly being paroled after six months. She doesn't stay in long.
  • Snitch: It's established as standard that if a person is charged with a drug offense they can roll on someone else to get lesser charges and thus a reduced sentence. John's son Jason however is the one who'd been rolled on, and won't entice anyone else into drug dealing to save himself, so he's facing at least a decade behind bars. Horrified by the prospect, John steps in to help instead, making a deal with the prosecutor and DEA to bring down some drug dealers so his son gets lenience. Eventually, he nails such a big fish that Jason is set free with all the charges dropped.


  • Averted in Darkness at Noon: whereas other prisoners are made to confess through torture, or to save their own lives or those of their relatives, Rubashov is promised no reward for willingly denouncing himself as a traitor.
  • The Lincoln Lawyer: Mickey Haller once pressured a client charged with rape and murder to plead guilty so he'd be sentenced to just 30 years with a chance to obtain a parole after 15 years. That came to bite him hard when he not only learned the client was innocent but he was also defending the actual culprit from an attempted rape charge.
  • Zara Hossain Is Here: Zara's dad pleads to trespassing so he won't face more charges over having gone to the Benson house. This endangers his status to have a green card (along with Zara and her mom's) however.

     Live Action TV  

  • Attempts at plea bargains are common in the various Law & Order series, usually between the apprehension and trial phases.
    • This is especially common in episodes that deal with organized crime or social commentary. The detectives spend the first half of the episode finding the person who directly killed the victim. That Villain of the Week will immediately plead guilty, then the second half is dedicated to the prosecutors going after the larger organization who ordered the killing, or created the conditions that led to it.
      Arthur Branch: A negotiated agreement between two competent attorneys is the greatest step forward in jurisprudence since the guillotine.
    • Which is a bit of a problem in the UK version as plea bargains aren't allowed under English law (although reduced sentences for pleading guilty are standard practice). Charges often get reduced to something more minor for one reason and another -assault with a deadly weapon instead of attempted murder, for example- but that's up to the Crown Prosecution Servicenote  rather than the accused's defence team.
    • In one case, the prosecutors give a plea bargain for a short prison sentence to a woman who helped kill her boyfriend kill her sister. However, near the end of the episode, they force her to confess her entire role in the crime in front of the judge, including having sex with her sister while she was unconscious, and the judge throws out the agreement, at which point the prosecutors offer her twenty to life and threaten her with the death penalty if she doesn't cooperate.
  • Shark (the show with James Woods) has this happen regularly, or at least has attempts to plea bargain.
  • Homicide: Life on the Street frequently went to plea bargain by the end of the story.
  • There is an episode of Boston Legal that uses this. Alan Shore's client an old friend and fellow lawyer who is accused of murder. She is offered a plea bargain at the beginning but of course won't say she's guilty and has a Big Secret.
  • Plea bargains are commonplace on JAG, but they're often turned down.
  • Happens all the time on The Closer and its After Show, Major Crimes.
    • One instance of it on The Closer is notable because it backfired spectacularly. An elderly shopkeeper and his 8-year-old grandson are shot to death by a local gang member, and the police think that they know who it is. They also think that another gang member witnessed the murder or maybe, at most, was an accomplice. The potential witness is offered an immunity agreement, stating that he won't get charged with anything in exchange for telling them everything he knows, in the hopes that his testimony will be enough to get the other guy. Except it turns out the guy they thought did it was innocent, the "witness" committed the murder himself, and the other guy just happened to come into the shop as the killer was leaving. So basically, they've just let a guy off scot-free for murdering an old man and a child.
    • In Major Crimes, this is spelled out as a key point. As the Los Angeles city government is nearly broke, the cops are pushed to get crooks to confess and make these deals because plea bargains can't be appealed and thus the D.A.'s office saves a fortune on those cases. Several of the cops aren't happy that murderers will get light sentences but have to go along with orders from on high.
  • Perry Mason (2020): The case in Season 2 ends this way. Perry gets a deal with Burger to have Mateo plead guilty and is sentenced to thirty years in prison without parole, while Rafael has all charges dismissed against him.
  • The issue of whether or not to accept an offered plea bargain is a common plot point in The Practice. In one episode, Todd Beck was arrested for killing a cop and the victim's partners decided to coerce a confession from him instead of allowing the doctors to give him the needed medical care. To make things worse, the prosecutor in charge of the case was Kenneth Walsh, who condoned the torture. Beck was forced to testify against Joe Moran (a friend of Beck's who was at the crime scene). Walsh then offered Moran immunity in exchange for testifying against Beck. The judge was appalled at this but had to allow this since Moran wasn't forced to testify. Walsh then offered Beck a deal: if he pleads guilty to illegally possessing a gun, he gets six months for that and it'd be officially declared he was justified about shooting the cop. Beck accepted the deal.
  • In Rumpole of the Bailey, Rumpole ultimately makes a point of never having his clients plead guilty, and any lawyer in the books who even thinks of plea bargaining is seen as a moron. The odd thing is that Rumpole sometimes does lose the case this way, but the story is clearly on his side. That said, he does plead guilty (or try to) under certain circumstances:
    • When he can no longer defend his client. In the second episode of the series, Rumpole says he has no choice but to plead guilty after his client gives him information completely inconsistent with her innocence. This path is more or less forced by one of the canons of conduct for lawyers: don't lie to the Court (American lawyers call it "candor to the tribunal"). ("What to do when your client tells you something that makes their case indefensible" is a classic problem in legal ethics classes.)
    • When he knows the judge and thinks he can get a deal for no prison time. Usually, this means a former member of his chambers (George Frobisher, Guthrie Featherstone, or Phyllida Erskine-Brown), though it backfired the first time we see him try it (when George rejected a promise of no prison even though Phyllida—who was prosecuting—agreed with Rumpole on that point).
    • There's also the first "Play for Today" pilot where he advised this right off the bat; that can probably be chalked up to Early-Installment Weirdness.
  • In the American version of Shameless (US) Fiona is arrested for child endangerment for accidentally allowing her younger brother Liam to get into some cocaine she had out in the open. Her somewhat overworked lawyer tells her that it would be best to plea bargain, as she's a first time offender, it's a fairly Open-and-Shut Case, and at worst she'd probably only get 1-3 months in jail. Fiona, however, is resistant to plead guilty as the entire affair was an accident, and has to be persuaded to accept the plea deal (she ends up not having to actually serve any time, and is instead given probation).
  • In Orange Is the New Black, the entire reason Piper convicted is because someone else in the drug ring named her as a part of a plea bargain. She later discovers that the person who named her is Alex.
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pilot has Sisko invoke the Ferengi version of plea bargaining when Nog gets arrested; he drops the charges if the Ferengi keep themselves (and their community-building business) on the station instead of leaving as they planned, or he makes sure Nog gets a long sentence. Sisko freely calls it blackmail in later episodes. Sisko calls plea bargaining a Ferengi legal tradition, but the way the criminal cases against Bashir's father and Ezri's brother are resolved indicate that it's alive and well in the Federation criminal justice system.
  • Criminal Minds
    • In Season 12 when Spencer Reid is arrested for murder, he's quickly offered a plea deal to serve as little as a few months in jail. His attorney thinks he should take it, but due to a combination of believing himself to be innocent (he was drugged at the time, so he doesn't actually remember) and the knowledge that any conviction would bar him from further employment with the FBI, he refuses it out of hand. It becomes moot by the end of the episode; the prosecution had managed to locate the murder weapon, giving them a much stronger case, so they took that deal and any potential others off the table.
    • Despite the fact that the show deals almost exclusively with identifying and capturing criminals, versus the trial and conviction process, plea bargaining does pop up a few times. Typically, they've been caught red-handed (or almost red-handed) but they have some other bargaining chip to play, either a hostage in a remote location only they can find or some other information like the identity and location of their former victims' bodies. This is never used to negate the sentencing entirely, just to get a better deal. For example, one particularly slimy unsub wanted a life sentence off the table and wanted minimum security, and the team almost gave it to him so he would reveal the location of his hostages. Then they tricked him into taking it off the table and found the girls themselves.
  • L.A.'s Finest: Nico takes one over his mom's death, so it can't get used against Nancy or Patrick.
  • The Crowded Room: Stan, Danny's lawyer, tries to make a plea bargain with the prosecutor where he would plead guilty to a misdemeanor then get treatment in a hospital, but she rejects the idea immediately.
  • Deputy: District Attorney Carol Riley tells Hollister she plans to cut a deal with corrupt former detective Johnson that will have him plead guilty in exchange for light punishment, as he's given useful information to her office. Hollister opposes this strongly, and works to kill the plea deal.
  • In the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode "Ad Astra per Aspera", Una is offered a Plea Bargain of getting a Dishonorable Discharge from Starfleet in exchange for her not having to serve any time in a penal colony.
  • Wild Cards (2024): Max makes a bargain with the authorities to help solve crimes in exchange for only getting probation over robbing a bank if she abides by its terms.

     Video Games  

     Web Comics 
  • In Schlock Mercenary, the Toughs end up on the wrong side of general Xinchub, who attempts to arrest them (as part of a scheme to force them into performing a mission for him). As part of his list of criminal activities by the Toughs, Xinchub mentions how Kevyn making the Teraport open source and giving the technology out freely to the entire Galaxy constitutes treason because the list of recipients included known enemies of humanity. Kevyn asks if he can plea-bargain it down to the lesser charge of "Grand Spamming" for having essentially spammed the known Universe in the process. The Rant points out that will not work terribly well, since spammers are more hated than traitors in the future.

     Western Animation  

  • Batman Beyond: District Attorney Sam Young's reelection campaign in "Eyewitness" had it mentioned that, during his tenure, the District Attorney's office had a decrease in the ratio of plea bargains for violent crimes.

     Real Life  

  • During Prohibition, "bargain days" were the only way many courts could keep up with the alcohol-related workload. Everyone who agreed to plead guilty in exchange for the smallest penalty the judge could get away with would be scheduled for the same court date, and the formalities were zipped through to clear as many cases off the docket as possible. Nowadays this often happens (albeit less frequently) with possession charges for small amounts of marijuana. Again, the issue here is that in contraband cases, a trial is generally worse than useless—it would be pointless for the defendant to deny the charge, since the only way you get caught is if the cops actually see you commit the crime (carrying the contraband), so once the defense lawyer has tried and (usually) failed to get the evidence suppressed for alleged police misconduct, the defendant usually just wants to get the business over with.
  • Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka is one infamous example of a plea bargain. After assisting her husband Paul Bernardo in the murder and rape of three girls (including her own sister) in the city of St. Catharine's, she struck a deal with the prosecutors and received a 12 year sentence in exchange for taking the stand against Bernardo, who ended up getting life. Unfortunately, not long after the trial closed, tapes were found of the murders that revealed that Karla had had more to do with the murders than previously thought. For this reason, the case is often referred to as "the Deal with the Devil."note 
  • Roman Polański's reasons for escaping from his sexual assault case in the USA. As per an agreement, Polanski confessed to his crime and submitted himself to Chino where he served 60 out of 90 days in prison before being released as per the recommendation of his psychological evaluation handler for good behavior. As a result of increasing media publicity, the Judge Lawrence Rittenband said, as the DA would note later, very negligently, that he was willing to ignore the plea bargain and submit Polanski to a stricter sentence. At this point, Polanski decided to leave America for good rather than deal with the situation.
  • American serial killer Carl Eugene Watts (dubbed "The Sunday Morning Slasher") came close to being released in 2006 due to a plea bargin made at the time of his initial conviction in Texas in 1982. He would end up receiving two life sentences without parole after being convicted of two murders in Michigan, and would ultimately die in prison in 2007.
  • Jared Loughner was initially ruled not competent to stand trial after the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. When he was finally ruled competent in August 2012, he and his lawyers agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence (Arizona has the death penalty). Considering that it's anyone's guess whether Loughner could have been kept on the "mentally competent" list for the full duration of a trial, the deal was accepted.


Video Example(s):


Tony Makes An Offer

Tony tries to offer Kendrick an off-the-books plea bargain to try and bring the CIB investigation into Kendrick's conduct to a close that won't involve an extremely public legal battle which could result in Dicks, a man they both believe is a serious criminal, being realised from prison.

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