Can a public defender threaten someone into signing using strong methods such as this?

"If you don't sign this plea for 15 years, I promise the state will prosecute you for 25 years and win!!!"

  • 4
    The public defender is not in a position to make promises about the actions of the prosecutor. Nobody is in a position to make promises about the outcome of a trial.
    – phoog
    Feb 12, 2016 at 19:47
  • If someone has handwritten and signed proof of this by the public defender, is the counsel considered ineffective? Feb 13, 2016 at 4:15
  • 2
    @breakskater If the public defender gave reasoned estimation of the chances of success and risks and benefits of pleading vs going to trial, that would not be ineffective council.
    – user3851
    Feb 13, 2016 at 4:33
  • 2
    @Breakskater Let's say your doctor discovers you have a serious disease, but you feel fine so you don't want it treated. Your doctor says "unless you get this treated now, you will not live to see 2017." Like your case, this isn't what is normally called a "promise;" it's a prediction by a well-trained professional (far better-trained than you) that falls squarely within their expertise. The lawyer isn't threatening you, and neither is the doctor. They are doing their job, telling you the likely outcome of each option you have. You may be swayed by that, but it's not intimidation.
    – cpast
    Feb 14, 2016 at 5:04
  • @cpast nice example. It's not completely analogous, though, since the defender could be conveying information obtained from the prosecutor, who might have said something like "we're going to prosecute for [a charge that carries a penalty of 25 years], but we're offering the option to plead guilty to [some other charge] for a penalty of 15 years."
    – phoog
    Feb 23, 2016 at 19:48

3 Answers 3


The closest case to this is Brady v. United States 397 U.S. 742 (1970):

We here make no reference to the situation where the prosecutor or judge, or both, deliberately employ their charging and sentencing powers to induce a particular defendant to tender a plea of guilty. In Brady' case, there is no claim that the prosecutor threatened prosecution on a charge not justified by the evidence or that the trial judge threatened Brady with a harsher sentence if convicted after trial in order to induce him to plead guilty.

In Brady, had he not entered a guilty plea, he would have been risking the death penalty. The court recognized:

It may be that Brady, faced with a strong case against him and recognizing that his chances for acquittal were slight, preferred to plead guilty, and thus limit the penalty to life imprisonment, rather than to elect a jury trial which could result in a death penalty.

They upheld the plea:

Although Brady's plea of guilty may well have been motivated in part by a desire to avoid a possible death penalty, we are convinced that his plea was voluntarily and intelligently made, and we have no reason to doubt that his solemn admission of guilt was truthful.

So, even in the case where the risk of a death penalty may have motivated a guilty plea, the plea has been upheld.

All of the above is with respect to actions of the prosecution. In any case, the main test is whether the defendant entered a plea voluntarily and intelligently.

  • 1
    The question in its current form is asking about promises made by the public defender -- the accused's own lawyer. Granted, it's an odd question, and possibly not what the asker intended to ask.
    – phoog
    Feb 12, 2016 at 19:45
  • @phoog Oh, I'm sorry. I must have read what I expected to read. And yeah, I agree, I didn't answer the question.
    – user3851
    Feb 12, 2016 at 20:21
  • @phoog, thanks, you are right; I was referring to the public defender intimidating the defendant into quickly signing the plea. Feb 13, 2016 at 4:17
  • 1
    The defendant still has to assert to the judge that they are making the plea voluntarily etc. Without coercion.
    – user3851
    Feb 13, 2016 at 4:31

An alternate interpretation of the verb "promise" is:

"In my considered opinion, the prosecutors will seek a 25 year sentence, and again, in my considered opinion they will win!"


A rhetorical question, and an important and disturbing one. In the USA, of course they can and they do every day. I have seen with my own eyes, a defendant sign behind his back (handcuffed), wearing an orange clown suit in a full room of people where formal attire is required, shackled, and in the midst of months of dehumanizing and demoralizing torture, a statement that reads "I am not being coerced; I am of sound mind with intellect; I am not under duress" and made to swear to those lies under oath. The alternative is to be returned to torture indefinitely and ensure harsher penalties.

Public defenders (and attorneys in general) will go as far as to have you initial a legally binding document and say "Just initial here. This does not apply to you."

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