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Document Type

Article

Abstract

Although there has been substantial academic focus on the subject of plea bargaining, the guilty-plea hearing has received considerably less notice and criticism. It is this hearing where a defendant formally changes his plea from “not guilty” to “guilty,” and where judges are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that defendants are making this decision voluntarily and with sufficient awareness of an array of critical attendant consequences. Yet, all too frequently, courts hastily perform this task, and accept a defendant’s change of plea decision without sufficient examination. These problems were on display in two recent Supreme Court cases, Lee v. United States and Class v. United States. In each case, the district courts accepted the defendant’s guilty plea without adequately ensuring the defendant’s comprehension of a key matter central to their decision-making. The Supreme Court in Brady v. United States stated that the decision to enter a guilty plea “is a grave and solemn act to be accepted only with care and discernment.” However, this “care and discernment” expectancy is commonly unfulfilled. This Article will analyze the federal guilty-plea-hearing process, explain why expediency and facial compliance with Rule 11 (as opposed to searching inquiries regarding a defendant’s knowledge and coercive influences) characterize federal-court procedure, discuss how these short-falls affect federal defendants generally, and the indigent and minorities in particular, and propose a pathway to reform.

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