Jeremy Richey has a couple posts (1 & 2) as to whether it is "wrong for a guilty person to plead not guilty in court." He concludes that under our judicial system it is not. This blawger disagrees in part, agrees in part, and remands the morality of this matter for further consideration, should Jeremy be so advised.
Let me start by setting out some ground rules. (1) I'm not discussing "legal ethics." (2) I'm not referring to a pro forma "not guilty" at an initial arraignment. (3) The moral responsibility of the defendant is different than the moral responsibility of defense counsel and today's discussion is about the defendant.
Moral Responsibility of the Defendant
Once a defendant has broken the law, the personal moral responsibility for the act lies at her feet. As such, she acts immorally if she denies that responsibility. A plea of not guilty is an attempt to deny responsibility. Therefore, a plea of not guilty is an immoral act.
Competing Moral Obligations: The Excuses
It's an easy syllogism, but it's subject to a million modifications imposed upon it by the real world. Competing moral obligations are often put forth by defendants that have nothing to do guilt or innocence. Responsibility to family is probably the one dealt with the most often; the defendant will usually proclaim a duty to care for a child, spouse, or parent. Responsibility to society is another claim; a common form of this is a defendant's assertion that if he goes to jail he won't be able to keep his job and therefore won't be able to pay on his fines or back child support owed to the Division of Child Support.
Sometimes, perhaps often, perhaps quite often, these proclaimed responsibilities are excuses given to dodge the taking of personal moral responsibility for the illegal act. The defendant didn't care about these other responsibilities when she got caught shoplifting the third time in two years (that's third time caught, not committed). If she gets released she won't think about these responsibilities when she heads back to the mall to shoplift again. Please note, I am not saying these arguments are not valid in a sentencing hearing. I do not believe in their validity in the decision as to whether to plead not guilty to an illegal act the defendant has committed.
Competing Moral Obligations: The Few Pursuing the Perfect
So, then the question becomes, is there a time when it is morally correct for a guilty person to plead not guilty? I'd put the situation through a basic two-part test.
1) (a)Is the law morally reprehensible, orBoth 1)(a) and (b) are justifications. 1)(a) raises the question of at what point a particular aspect of the majority's societal compact (personified in a statute) becomes so immoral that an individual is obligated to resist? It would not merely be a law which personifies a societal decision the defendant doesn't like (i.e. making marijuana illegal). It would have to be a statute which so damages the moral health of society that it is impossible to ignore (slavery, suffrage, etc.). Of course, these are things which are much easier seen with 20/20 hindsight. We praise those who had the foresight and fortitude to stand against the majority in the name of these causes. We forget those who had the the fortitude to stand for moral principles which we now view as failed, wrong or irrelevant.
(b) Will obedience to the law lead to a morally reprehensible result?
2) Can a not guilty plea actually accomplish anything?
1)(b) is the necessity justification. It is what allows self defense or trespassing "safe harbor" exceptions. It is generally pretty straight forward, usually involving threat to life or limb.
2) is about practicality and it's going to be the hangup for most defendants. If a normal, non-famous, 22 year old defendant pleads not guilty to a charge, purely on moral grounds, in a mostly empty courtroom and it does nothing to expose or change an immoral law - only having the effect of getting the defendant an extra year in jail - that is probably a person we should admire. We should try to talk her out of it, but we should admire the impulse. Assuming she will continue to act in pursuit of the moral ideal we have a duty to discourage her from an impractical absolutism which would deny further work on that ideal for longer than necessary. The good should not be ignored by blinders keeping one focused solely on the perfect.
Let's be clear here. The combination of 1)(a) & 2) will be rare. These are people such as Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King who are fighting for greater moral goods. They are not the usual people we see in court. 1)(b) & 2) will be more common, but still not applicable in the majority of cases. After all, there will seldom be a justification defense for things like shoplifting, embezzlement, or robbery.
Affect of the Immoral Not Guilty Plea on Lawyers and Court
Not much. Sure, a guilty person might be found not guilty because of the immoral refusal to accept responsibility. However, the defense counsel, prosecutor, and trial court are not responsible for the defendant's moral decision as to whether to take responsibility for the act. Quite simply, the trial system doesn't care. It is set up to test the government's ability to prove guilt - not to judge the defendant's morality. The stains on the souls of those in the dock are between them and God, not them and the court.