|Psychological Mitigation in Plea Bargains
Martin H. Williams, Ph.D.
Many attorneys have asked me to evaluate their clients who are first-time criminal defendants. Nearly all of these cases have involved crimes pertaining to sex with minors, although the basic idea of psychological mitigation is applicable to a wide variety of crimes.
In a recent, and very typical sex-related case, a married man with a penchant for internet sexual adventures finds himself trapped in a sting operation by a police officer posing as a “barely” underage female. After the man is arrested, he faces criminal charges that hardly differentiate between a career sexual predator, who specifically targets young girls, and a man who happened into the wrong chat room on a single occasion. In the case of my recent client, the fact that the woman was underage was not part of her appeal to the man, and it did not motivate his contacts with her. She was simply available, and her “barely” underage status was an irrelevant aspect of his interest in meeting her.
Without doubt, my client had committed a serious crime by agreeing to a rendezvous with this purportedly underage woman (actually a male police officer). The question of psychological mitigation arises when we consider what kind of criminal he was. Was he a pedophile who was engaged in a serial process of predation on teenage girls? Or, was he a man who was unfaithful to his wife, was searching the internet for sexual liaisons, and who happened onto a liaison with an underage female without really paying attention to clear facts pertaining to her age.
The criminal defense attorney referred the client to me for a complete psychological evaluation. After getting to know the client, his background, and his apparent lack of interest in underage girls, and after running a battery of psychological tests, I was able to produce a report for the attorney that was useful in arranging a plea bargain. The district attorney understood that this man, who had undoubtedly committed a sex crime, was not a serial predator and was unlikely to be a future threat to the community. Thus, a lighter sentence was agreed, between prosecution and defense, in this specific case.
In another case, the attorney initially presented a superficially similar set of facts to me, but the outcome was very different. Upon carrying out my evaluation and reviewing all the evidence, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that this client actually was a predator who specifically sought underage partners and had committed a variety of premeditated and carefully calculated crimes for which he was now facing charges. The problem in this case was that the U.S. attorney was offering a plea bargain that was considered more than fair by the client’s attorneybut not by the client himself. The client hung on to the nearly delusional belief that he would be acquitted at a jury trial.
I was able to confer with the attorney and, working together, the attorney and I were able to break through the defendant’s psychological denial of the seriousness of the charges against him. After conferring with other attorneys who were knowledgeable regarding the kinds of sex crimes that were at issue in this case, we were able to make the defendant see that taking this case to trial would, undoubtedly, have led to a far worse outcome than would accepting the plea that was being offered to him. He accepted a negotiated seven-year sentence and avoided the twenty year plus sentence that experts believed a jury would likely hand down.
The psychologist can assist the legal system in understanding what motivates the criminal defendant who has acknowledged at least some of the accusations against him or her. Sometimes, the psychologist can help the defense attorney persuade the prosecutor to offer an acceptable plea agreement when the defendant’s character so warrants. At other times, the psychologist can assist the defense attorney in convincing the defendant to let go of the hope of exoneration at a jury trial in a case where the defendant has acknowledged committing crimes that the community at large considers repulsive.
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