The Impact of Discovery on Defendant Plea Decisions
Keywords:discovery, decision-making, guilty pleas, open-file policy, wrongful convictions
The disclosure of evidence, primarily from the prosecutor to the defense (i.e., discovery) is key to a fair and just legal system. Restrictive discovery policies have been criticized for contributing to innocent defendants pleading guilty (Alkon, 2014) and to uninformed plea decisions (Friedman, 1971). Open-file policies, in which prosecutors broadly share evidence with the defense, are a leading reform to address these issues. This study investigated the impact of guilt and access to discovery information (with or without exculpatory evidence) on plea decisions. We hypothesized that, in comparison to their counterparts, participants who had access to all of the evidence (i.e., those in open-file condition) and participants who were innocent would rate the evidence against them as significantly weaker, their probabilities of conviction at trial as significantly lower, and would be less likely to take the plea deal. We also hypothesized that ratings of evidence strength and probability of conviction would mediate expected relations between the plea decision and conditions. One-hundred participant-defendants were randomly assigned to open- vs. closed-file and guilt vs. innocence conditions, and asked to review case materials that either contained full or partial discovery. They were then asked to rate the strength of the evidence against them, their probability of conviction, and to accept or reject a plea offer in a hypothetical case. Defendant guilt and access to discovery information impacted perceived evidence strength, which subsequently impacted plea decision-making. Our findings indicate that access to discovery information indirectly impacted defendants’ plea decisions.
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Copyright (c) 2020 Samantha Luna, Allison D. Redlich
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