In recent years, plea bargains of all sorts have dominated the criminal-justice system: They now account for almost 95 percent of the final dispositions in felony cases across the nation

Share story

NEW HAVEN, Conn. —

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Leroy Harris appeared in court and pleaded guilty to kidnapping and robbery. The plea was a legal fiction and everybody knew it. He knew it. The prosecutors knew it. The judge knew it, too.

Nearly 30 years ago, Harris was convicted of raping a woman in New Haven — a verdict he has been trying to reverse ever since. This year, after decades of fighting his appeals, the Connecticut state’s attorney’s office finally conceded the evidence against him might be tainted. The prosecutors agreed to let him go — if he took a deal.

At the heart of the deal was something called an Alford plea, an odd legal paradox that required Harris to formally plead guilty to a set of lesser crimes, but not admit that he had actually committed them. After he played his role in this courtroom drama, the judge reduced his sentence to the years he had served. Harris was freed Tuesday night in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family.

But prosecutors also walked away with what they wanted. At least on paper, they were able to preserve their conviction. That ensured they would not have to conduct a second trial — or face the consequences of bungling the first.

In recent years, plea bargains of all sorts have dominated the criminal-justice system: They now account for almost 95 percent of the final dispositions in felony cases across the nation. Even the Supreme Court has acknowledged their pre-eminence, writing in 2012 that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”

Alford pleas, however, are exceptionally rare, composing only 6 percent of all the guilty pleas in state and federal courts, according to a study published in 2009. While some legal experts have assailed them as a patent violation of due-process rights, others have described them as a psychological salve: They allow defendants to maintain their innocence even as they bow to the reality that they would likely be convicted at a trial.

Then there are defendants like Harris, who entered his plea decades after his conviction and only, as he put it, “under duress.” Across the country, different prosecutorial agencies take different positions when facing cases that might be marred by a wrongful conviction. Some, like the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, have decided the most just option is simply to reverse a bad conviction and wipe a defendant’s slate entirely clean. But others use guilty pleas and sentence modifications to free people from prison in dubious prosecutions.

In Harris’ case, the prosecutor who tried the matter had not disclosed exculpatory evidence. Scientific testing also showed that DNA on the victim’s clothes could not have come from Harris. The victim failed at first to pick out Harris in a photograph array, but then, at trial, identified him for the first time as the man who had attacked her. This year, a Connecticut judge made it impossible to rely on her testimony, ruling that prosecutors could no longer use witnesses whose sole identification of a suspect came in court.

Legal experts say that even if defendants who enter guilty pleas are eventually released, they are often subject to collateral effects that could include losing government benefits or the legal right to vote. The strategy of hinging a release on entering a plea also allows a prosecutor’s office to keep a guilty finding on its records and thus avoid being sued.

“There are only two reasons to offer a plea after a conviction has occurred,” said John Hollway, an associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has written extensively about wrongful convictions. “If you don’t believe in your case, but you also don’t dismiss it, what are you really doing? You’re either trying to preserve your stats or protecting yourself against civil liability.”

Kevin Kane, the chief state’s attorney of Connecticut, disagreed. He insisted his prosecutors look at troubled cases on an individual basis and sometimes decide to dismiss the matter fully. That didn’t happen in Harris’ case, he said, because evidence existed that convinced the office it might have withstood an appeal.

“In this case, we worked out a compromise, and I think it was a fair one,” Kane said. “Does everybody walk away comfortable and happy? No. It’s a balance.”

From the moment he was charged with rape and robbery in 1989, Harris, now 57, has insisted on his innocence. Even after his conviction — for which he was sentenced to 80 years in prison — he fought the verdict through five appeals.

In the end, he took the deal.

“They were going to drag it out for years,” Harris said late Wednesday, “but 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”