Pleas should hold weight

Published 10:33 am Thursday, July 15, 2010

If the American legal system is to have any integrity at all, the guilt or innocence pleas must be final.

The burden falls on the attorneys — regardless of whether they are court appointed public defenders or high-priced legal experts with sterling records — to explain this process fully to their clients and leave no room for discussion later.

Then, the next level is for judges to ensure their court proceedings are conducted fairly and transparently, so that all legal requirements are met and the results are beyond reproach.

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Allowing any breakdown in the process erodes the time-tested strength of our legal system and, ultimately, our entire democracy.

Although this may sound like abstract debate suited for an ethics or law classroom, it actually hit home here in Lawrence County courts, which hear thousands of cases each year.

A recent case grabbed headlines both for the severity of the charges but also because the defendant pleaded guilty but then tried to change that plea about a month later claiming he didn’t understand the magnitude of the crime that could result in life without parole.

Judge Charles Cooper ruled that the defendant had been afforded the proper procedure and that the plea would stand.

It is tragic anytime someone is sent to prison. But Cooper made the right ruling because it strengthened the system and avoided a dangerous precedent.

If every individual who pleaded guilty was allowed to change their plea at the 11th hour, justice would constantly be derailed.

That is what is at the heart of this matter: Justice.

In this case it wasn’t about the specifics or the facts, simply whether or not the law and our legal system was followed.

In that sense, justice was served.