Last month, DaJuawn Wallace was given a choice: Plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit, or continue to fight the charge and take his chances in the criminal justice system.
At least that's the way county prosecutors in Saginaw, Michigan, laid it out for him following a preliminary hearing on June 12. Wallace, a 24-year-old graduate student at Saginaw Valley State University, had reason to consider caving. At issue was a felony count of fleeing and eluding police, a charge that carries a potential two-year jail sentence. Preparing a defense for a criminal trial is an expensive and time-consuming process, and it's difficult to predict the outcome of any case, even when the facts seem to be in your favor.
The charge stemmed from a February incident in which Wallace drove slowly for over a mile to a lit parking lot after a police officer attempted to initiate a traffic stop at 2 a.m. along a dark road. Wallace said he was just being cautious. Fake cops have drawn attention in Michigan, and he claimed police impostors had recently robbed his friends. The prosecution heard Wallace's explanation and expressed sympathy -- in the form of a deal that would allow him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony. Wallace rejected the offer, maintaining his innocence and noting that a misdemeanor charge would still come with significant consequences to his job and financial aid.
Prosecutors dropped the charge earlier this week amid a flurry of media scrutiny, bringing an end to a ridiculous and needless legal standoff.
"As of right now, the charge is dismissed. It was a unique set of facts and (a unique) situation," said Christopher Boyd, chief prosecutor for Saginaw County, according to MLive.
But the fact that prosecutors tried to pressure Wallace into pleading guilty in a case they likely couldn't have won -- or perhaps never even intended to take to trial -- is a symptom of the broader problem with plea bargaining in the criminal justice system.
Much of the focus on this issue has been placed on the rampant use of plea bargains in settling federal criminal cases. According to a 2014 report by U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff in the New York Review of Books, 97 percent of all federal cases closed in 2013 were resolved through plea bargains, in part due to the incredible power many prosecutors now wield over the process thanks to mandatory minimum sentences and other strict sentencing guidelines. Critics claim this trend leads many innocent, often disadvantaged people to plead guilty to lesser charges in order to avoid the prospect of more severe punishment should the case go to trial. Rakoff estimates there are as many as 20,000 people in prison after pleading guilty to crimes they didn't actually commit.
But this isn't just a problem for poorer defendants facing serious federal charges. The same basic calculation emerges in countless cases like Wallace's playing out in lower courts around the nation.
"After all, the typical person accused of a crime combines a troubled past with limited resources," Rakoff writes. "[H]e thus recognizes that, even if he is innocent, his chances of mounting an effective defense at trial may be modest at best."
It is likely this vulnerability that led prosecutors to believe they could manipulate Wallace into pleading guilty to a crime he didn't commit. While he had no criminal record, neither did Wallace have infinite resources at his disposal to fight the charge. He also had plenty riding on the case. Wallace is just a few semesters away from earning his master's degree in health administration from SVSU. It would have been hard to fault him for thinking it safer simply to accept the lesser charge, especially if prosecutors were hanging the possibility of jail time and a hefty fine over his head. If Wallace conceded, the Saginaw County prosecutor's office would have been able put another tally in the win column, thereby improving its conviction rate. If he didn't, they could continue to threaten Wallace with a felony charge, only to back down just days before a preliminary examination scheduled for Thursday. Which is exactly what happened.
This prosecution's underhanded yet commonplace behavior wasn't lost on the handful of people who on Wednesday gathered in support of Wallace outside the Saginaw County Governmental Center.
"It wasn't fair how it was carried out," one protester told NBC 25. "For them to wait to do the right thing and wait for civil unrest and media outpour, they should have done the right thing in February."
This story has been updated to include comment from Saginaw County Chief Prosecutor Christopher Boyd.