Why don’t people plead guilty to murder?

Q : In this case, given how obviously guilty they were, why didn’t they just accept it and save us all a lot of money?

A : Firstly, of course, everyone has a right to have a trial, and no-one should be forced to plead guilty. There have been cases where people are ‘obviously guilty’ and it turns out that they are, in fact, innocent. These may be rare, but during the course of a trial it is not uncommon for what seems an open and shut case to turn out to be far more nuanced that at first seemed. There are, often, two sides to every story.

But, as someone pointed out, it seems that far fewer people plead guilty to murder (proportionately) than to other cases. Is that correct? It is not easy to find the exact figures, but it would seem so.

As to why that would be, the case quoted above may give an indication as to why. We will look at it here in a ‘pragmatic’ way, in the way that a defendant who wants to get the best result for themselves may approach it.

In some cases, a guilty plea can make the difference between whether someone goes to prison or not. In others, if a defendant is working and won’t be sent to prison, then the amount they may have to pay if they lose a trial is far greater. Neither of those considerations will apply in a murder case.

Another (perhaps the main) reason for pleading guilty is that they will get credit (a discount) for the plea. This can be up to a third, so even if someone knows that they will be going to prison (say, for a drug importation), then it may still be worth pleading guilty so that a 12 year sentence is reduced to 8 years. The actual amount of time served would then be 4 years instead of 6 (half would be served in prison, half on licence in the community).

Here we can see why there is far less of an incentive to plead guilty to murder. Pleading guilty leads to a mandatory life sentence, and, as we looked at, this may lead to someone spending far longer in prison than their tariff.

But, it is when you consider the different credit rules for murder, that you really see the difference. For someone who is facing a 40 year tariff, the maximum discount is 5 years – still leaving at least 35 years in prison (rather than 26 and a half if there was the full one third discount). It is hardly surprising. therefore, that they would have pleaded not guilty.

Playing the odds

People are obviously not rational, but if you take a thought experiment with the figures above, the situation is stark. For the drug offence, if the chances of a conviction is 66% or less, then an economist may advise to have a trial. For the two people convicted of murder, the figure is 87.5% – over 20% higher. Is this a good idea, or is it time to review the credit for murder sentencing to increase it?

This entry was posted in Q&A on by .

About Dan Bunting

I'm a lawyer who works for myself. Legal geek, maths freak, general dullard and jack of all trades. Here’s a few views on law and occasional musings on life. Usual caveats about not relying on anything I say etc applies.

2 thoughts on “Why don’t people plead guilty to murder?

  1. Pingback: Catherine Gowing Murder | UK Criminal Law Blog

  2. Pingback: Lee Rigby’s killers guilty of murder | UK Criminal Law Blog

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