Charles Williamson was accused of the rape of an incapacitated woman. In lieu of going to trial, the prosecution offered a plea bargain in which Williamson would plead guilty to rape and serve significant jail time.
Rape plea bargains explained
A plea bargain is a tool used by the legal system where the prosecution and the defense negotiate terms in order to resolve the case and avoid going to trial. In exchange for pleading guilty, a defendant will waive their right to a jury trial but will be offered a lesser charge or lighter sentence than what they could possibly receive in a jury trial.
There are several incentives for both prosecutors and defendants to accept plea bargains. For the prosecution, plea bargains allow resolution of cases with less time and money, preventing overcrowding of the court calendar and of jails. For the defendant, accepting a plea bargain can have the following outcomes:
- Lesser charge
- Lighter sentence
- Avoiding the unpredictability of a jury trial verdict
- Saving time and money
- Getting out of jail
Accepting a plea bargain will often result in a lesser charge. This is especially significant if the charge will be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, as a felony charge can carry long-term consequences in many areas of the defendant’s life such as employment, housing, ability to obtain a driver’s license and eligibility for federal and state assistance. Obtaining a lighter sentence means less jail time for the defendant, which in addition to being out of jail means that the defendant has to miss less work and can continue fulfilling family or other obligations.
Accepting a plea bargain also allows the defendant to avoid the unpredictability of a jury trial verdict: in a jury trial it can be difficult to predict the outcome because of additional factors not relating to the case such as prejudice or bias of the jurors and their ability to understand the facts and legal issues presented to them. The process of taking a case to trial can take an extended period of time and cost thousands of dollars: accepting a plea bargain will save you time and money.
Also, if you are being held in jail either because you are not eligible for bail, cannot afford bail, or the judge does not believe you should be released on your own recognizance, you can be released from custody more quickly than if you were pursuing a jury trial.
Plea bargains can also have negative consequences. A defendant may accept a plea bargain because they are innocent but are scared of the repercussions of going to trial. Sometimes a defendant may accept a plea bargain because they cannot afford to continue paying an attorney to represent them or may lose their jobs if they are given significant jail time. Also, there is a disproportionate number of plea bargains for minorities and uneducated defendants, reflecting both underlying issues of racism and lack of understanding of the legal process and one’s rights.
Defendant changes his mind
After agreeing to accept the plea bargain, Williamson changed his mind and pled not guilty, causing the case to go to trial. After hearing testimony from Williamson and the alleged rape victim, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.