Florida Prosecutors

Permitted To Extract Pleas From Innocent Defendants Granted A New Trial

by Hans Sherrer

Justice:Deniedmagazine, Issue 26, page 9

In separate Florida state cases, Alan Yurko and Kevin Coleman were granted a re-trial in the fall of 2004 based on “new” evidence that undermined the fundamental fairness of their trial, and supported their innocence. However in both cases the prosecutors used the stick of threatening to contest the judge’s order that could result in the men spending more years behind bars before their possible release, to entice each man to bite at the carrot of an immediate release by pleading no-contest to a crime neither man committed.

Although not an admission of guilt, a no-contest (nolo contendere) plea is a defendant’s acknowledgment that there is sufficient prosecution evidence to support the reasonable likelihood that a jury would find him or her guilty after a trial. Furthermore, a no-contest plea has all the legal implications for a defendant as a conviction after a guilty plea. A judicial analysis of the prosecution’s evidence can determine that it supports the reasonable likelihood of the defendant’s acquittal, or that it supports the reasonable likelihood of the defendant’s conviction - even if by only a factor of 51% to 49% one way or the other - however it cannot support both positions at the same time. Consequently, it seems logically insupportable for a judge to accept a no-contest plea from a defendant to whom the judge had granted a new trial, after determining the reasonable likelihood a jury would have acquitted the person if it had considered the “new” evidence undermining the prosecution’s ability to prove his or her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Furthermore, a no-contest plea has the profound consequence for an innocent defendant of forestalling the collecting of damages for his or her wrongful imprisonment - whether such a payment is statutorily authorized, awarded as a result of a civil suit, or both.

Yet after ordering a re-trial based on compelling defense favorable evidence, the judge in both the Yurko and Coleman cases took the “logically insupportable” step of accepting a no-contest plea, sentencing the men to time served, and then ordering their immediate release.

Apart from the questionable ethics of a judge’s acceptance of a no-contest plea under such dubious circumstances, it is not a secret why the prosecution wanted a no-contest plea from the men instead of simply dropping the charges: The negative publicity of having convicted an innocent person is squelched, and the government agencies and personnel financially vulnerable for their involvement in the wrongful conviction of Yurko and Coleman are secure from facing the possibility of liability for paying compensation.

However by accepting a suspect no-contest plea when the weight of the evidence supported the acquittal of Yurko and Coleman, the judge allowed the prosecution to misuse the officiousness of the court to ensure a wrongly convicted person will forever have the undeserved stain of a felony conviction on his or her record, and not receive any compensation for their years of being wrongly imprisoned.