Investigating Predictors of True and False Guilty Pleas

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Abstract

An estimated 90% to 95% of convictions are obtained via guilty pleas, and roughly 11% of individuals exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project falsely pleaded guilty (innocenceproject.org). Despite the prevalence of guilty pleas (and the existence of false guilty pleas), relatively little scholarship has examined what influences a defendant to plead guilty (Redlich, 2010). In this study, we investigated factors that affected whether guilty and innocent students who were accused of cheating pleaded guilty or took their case before the Student Conduct Committee in a hearing (analogous to a trial). Using social psychological literature on social influence (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004), we manipulated two legally and theoretically relevant factors: the attorney’s recommendation and the guilt of the defendant. Overall, guilty individuals were more likely to accept a guilty plea than innocent individuals. Advocate recommendation affected innocent and guilty participants’ plea decisions; however, the effect was stronger for innocent individuals. Innocent participants advised to go to trial were less likely to falsely plead guilty (M = 4%) compared with those without an advocate (M = 35%), those who were given educational information (M = 47%), or those who were advised to plead guilty (M = 58%). Overall, findings suggest that innocent individuals may be more vulnerable to the effects of social influence when considering advice from an advocate compared with guilty individuals.

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