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Innocent suspects face terrible choice: plead guilty or risk life in prison

In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 photo, James Ochoa poses for a photo outside his home in Grand Prairie, Texas. Ochoa, who was on probation for drug possession when he was arrested for a carjacking, pleaded guilty to second-degree armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the carjacking to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days. More than 300 of the more than 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations compiled by the University of Michigan Law School. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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It’s hard to imagine why anyone would plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit. But as Alanna Durkin Richer and Curt Anderson found, it happens more often than people might think in an overwhelmed criminal justice system that prefers to resolve cases through plea deals rather than costly trials.

Richer, a reporter in Richmond bureau, and Anderson, who covers legal affairs in Miami, had separately proposed stories looking at what has driven the decades-long decline in jury trials, which have become exceedingly rare as more cases are resolved by guilty plea.

They combined efforts and started looking for a fresh angle into the story. Digging through publicly available data on exonerations, they found alarming statistics: More than 300 of the roughly 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty. Richer and Anderson set out to explain why anyone would plead guilty to a crime he or she didn’t commit.

Some people’s stories didn’t match up with official records. Others were difficult to reach or pin down for interviews.

Finding someone who had been through the ordeal of pleading guilty and then being exonerated wasn’t easy. Some people’s stories didn’t match up with official records. Others were difficult to reach or pin down for interviews. Finally, one man’s story rose above the others – James Ochoa, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery at age 20 because the judge threatened him with a life sentence if he was found guilty at trial.

Ochoa told Richer that he took a two-year plea deal because he feared he’d never see his young son again and spent about a year in prison before he was exonerated when DNA linked the crime to another man in 2006. “I felt like I was gambling with my life,” Ochoa said.

As Richer and Anderson showed,Ochoa’s case is not unique.

Last year,more than 40 percent of exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty,more than any previous year,according to the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the University of Michigan Law School. A federal judge who has studied the issue for years said sociologists have estimated that between 2 and 8 percent of people who plead guilty are in fact innocent.

Their story painted an alarming picture of how innocent people like Ochoa can become victims of an overwhelmed criminal justice system with overworked public defenders and expedient judges and prosecutors who prefer to resolve cases through guilty plea than costly trials.

Their article was used by 87 outlets and was shared 200 times on Facebook and 70 times on Twitter, including by the California Innocence Project and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender. It was the lead story on The Marshall Project’s daily email to subscribers one day last week and was included again in the group’s weekend email highlighting the best stories on the criminal justice beat that week.

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