48 Notre Dame Law. 835 (1972-1973)
Finality of a Plea of Guilty, The; Erickson, William H.

handle is hein.journals/tndl48 and id is 837 raw text is: THE FINALITY OF A PLEA OF GUILTY

William H. Erickson
I. Introduction
Pleas of guilty are estimated to account for at least ninety per cent of the
criminal convictions every year.' Such dispositions are clearly necessary from a
pragmatic point of view. If a trial were required for every defendant, there
would not be enough judges, defense counsel, prosecutors, or courtrooms. Guilty
pleas, however, must reflect more than the defendant's desire for lenient treat-
ment and the prosecutor's concern for case load management. Justice, especially
criminal justice, must be founded on truth. The quest in a criminal trial is a
search for truth; therefore, guilt must be the truth. Fair and accurate guilty
pleas also hasten the beginning of rehabilitation and increase respect for our
criminal justice system. If trials serve to decide primarily those cases in which
the defendant has grounds for contesting guilt, the presumption of innocence and
the requirement for proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt will regain their
deserved vigor. Since rehabilitation cannot truly begin if the accused is still
struggling to avoid responsibility for his conduct, the finality of a guilty plea is
also an important feature of an effective system of criminal justice. Standards
developed in recent years by the American Bar Association assist judges, prosecu-
tors, and defense counsel alike in arriving at fairness and accuracy in entering
guilty pleas with a view to minimizing post-conviction contests as to finality.
Indeed, these standards relating to guilty pleas constitute a major step toward
increasing the overall effectiveness of the criminal process.'
II. History
The critical and peculiar nature of a plea of guilty has long been recognized.
A plea of guilty differs in purpose and effect from a mere admission or an
extra-judicial confession; it is itself a conviction. More is not required, the court
has nothing to do but give judgment and sentence.' Since the plea operates as
a conviction, its validity must be as firmly grounded as any conviction. In
Machibroda v. United States,4 the petitioner, under the so-called federal habeas
corpus provision,' moved to set aside and vacate the sentence he was serving
* Justice, Colorado Supreme Court.
1 THE PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION ON LAW ENFORCEMENT AND ADMINISTRATION OF
JUSTICE, TASK FORCE REPORT: THE COURTS 9 (1967). In Santobello v. New York, 404
U.S. 257 '(1971), justice Douglas, in a footnote [1a] to his concurring opinion, recognized
that the percentage of convictions based on guilty pleas was 90.2 in 1964. In fiscal 1970,
28,178 convictions occurred in 89 United States District Courts, of which 24,111 were by
plea of guilty or nolo contendere. D. NEWMAN, CONVICTION: THE DETERMINATION OF GUILT
OR INNOCENCE WITHOUT TRIAL (1966).
2 See generally, AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION STANDARDS FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE,
STANDARDS RELATING TO PLEAS OF GUILTY (1968) [hereinafter cited as PLEAS OF GUILTY].
3 Kercheval v. United States, 274 U.S. 220 (1927).
4 368 U.S. 487 (1962).
5 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (1971). District courts are required to grant a prompt hearing to
determine issues, make findings of fact and conclusions of law. This procedure is followed
unless the motions, files, and records of the case show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.
835

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