When I read of criminal cases in the news, it seems like the defendants routinely plead innocent even when the evidence against them is overwhelming and conviction seems like a near certainty. Why do they do this?

The possible explanations I could think of:

(1) Judges like the attention so they give pretty much the same sentences no matter to encourage long trials that "justify" the judge's employment. In other judges are not rewarded for processing cases faster so they have no incentive to discourage pointless trials.

(2) Defense attorneys encourage defendants to plead innocent because the attorney will make more money from a trial than a guilty plea.

(3) Defense attorneys like the publicity they get from high-profile trials.

(4) Sentencing guidelines result in more or less the same sentences no matter what, so the defendant may as well plead innocent, since he has nothing to lose.

(5) Defendants plead innocent out of desparation.

(6) Defendants are always absurdly over-charged, so they are hoping to get found innocent of some of the crazier charges.

Obviously these are just some of the explanations. Anybody got insight on this?

  • 2
    law.stackexchange.com/q/4845/3851 "about 95-97% of defendants do plead guilty, but only after pleading not guilty first."
    – user3851
    Apr 15 '16 at 0:41
  • 4
    You missed option 7: you read about incidents that go to trial more than those that get a plea.
    – cpast
    Apr 15 '16 at 2:55

The first step in the judicial process is arraignment. That's where the bail is set. You can plead guilty right there. Either you can get sentence then there or (for more serious crimes) there is a later hearing.

It's extremely rare to plead guilty at an arraignment. At that point you don't even know the evidence against you. If someone represented by the PD pleads guilty at that point, the judge is going to raise an eyebrow.

Thus, nearly everyone pleads not guilty (to start with at least). Nearly everyone charged pleads guilty later on down the line.


The main reason is that, if that criminal plead not guilty in the first trial, and the judgement entered against him, he can appeal conviction and sentence. If he plead guilty, he cannot appeal against conviction but can only appeal against sentence. Therefore, to ensure a chance of setting aside judgement, they will normally plead not guilty as advised by the solicitor.

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