When ‘Not Guilty’ Pleas Mislead the Public

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Robin Barton

Like many people, I get breaking news email alerts from various media agencies, including CNN and the New York Times. Usually they’re sent out for appropriate events, such as when someone important dies or when a natural disaster or other public emergency occurs.

But on several occasions I’ve gotten such alerts when a recently arrested defendant has just pleaded not guilty in an initial court appearance.

For example, on July 10, 2013, I got a breaking news alert from CNN saying, “Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleads not guilty to 30 federal counts related to the April 15 attacks.”

I got similar alerts from several other news agencies that day.

Such alerts are inappropriate and misleading.

I don’t know the statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that upwards of 95 percent of defendants plead not guilty in their first court appearance. So if initial guilty pleas at arraignment are standard, how can they be breaking news?

These alerts bother me because I believe the media has a duty to both inform and educate the public. By sending these alerts, the press is misleading the public about the significance of initial guilty pleas and missing an opportunity to teach readers how the criminal justice system works.

For example, legal journalist Andrew Cohen begins an article on the Jared Loughner case by noting that after it was reported that Loughner had pleaded not guilty to federal murder and attempted murder charges, one person Tweeted, “How could he plead ‘not guilty’ when they tackled him with a gun in his hand after shooting a judge?”

Thus, it appears that at least some members of the public don’t, in fact, understand the process through which a criminal case typically goes and the rights that defendants have throughout that process.

And these alerts do nothing to help educate them on the workings of the criminal justice system.

How does this system work?

I am personally familiar with only the New York system, but it’s essentially the same across the country.

In general, when a defendant is arrested, the police charge him or her with the crimes they think are appropriate. The case is brought before an assistant district attorney who drafts a complaint charging the defendant with the crimes the prosecutor believes apply, which can differ from the police’s charges.

The defendant is then brought before a judge and arraigned on the complaint. It’s at this point that nearly all defendants plead not guilty, even if they fully intend to plead guilty at some point down the road.

If the defendant is charged with a felony, he must be indicted by a grand jury. Once indicted, the defendant is arraigned on the indictment and again usually pleads not guilty.

These arraignments are the very beginning of the process and so the defense attorney and prosecutor generally haven’t had time to negotiate the terms of any plea bargain, particularly in complex, high profile cases.

It’s important that the people understand that a not guilty plea isn’t dishonest or inappropriate if the defendant knows he’s actually guilty of the crime in question.

As the Ohio State Bar Association explains, by pleading not guilty, a defendant is simply exercising his right to require the prosecution to meet its burden of proving all the elements of the charges against him beyond a reasonable doubt.

And as Cohen explains in his Loughner piece, a defendant may plead not guilty because there are other issues, such as competency, that must be addressed first.

The way news agencies treat initial not guilty pleas makes it appear that the defendants are doing something outside the norm and thus worthy of the same kind of news alert issued for tornados and bombings.

I’m not suggesting that the media shouldn’t cover this step in a criminal case. It is news-worthy.

However, by characterizing not guilty pleas at arraignment as “breaking news,” media outlets are indirectly undermining the integrity of the process and fostering the notion that anyone caught “red-handed” should simply give up their right to have the government prove their guilt.


Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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