November 24, 2012

Defendants should detail their guilt


---- — I’ve seen countless defendants in 33 years as lawyer and judge.

Most people charged with crime will plead guilty to something and will not go to trial. If allowed, they will stand quietly in court and plead guilty without admitting anything. Particularly in sex offenses or domestic violence, they will minimize their own behavior and blame the victim.

All of us make mistakes in life, especially when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Sometimes, it is serious enough to break the law and to harm others. It is how the person responds to their wrongdoing that is the real measure of character. It says a great deal when people take responsibility for their actions, learn from their mistakes and change their behavior.

Some defendants immediately accept responsibility; they are honest and contrite about their behavior and are ready to change. This is relatively rare.

Others will respond to the expectations put on them by the court system. Many defendants are experts at manipulating, denying, minimizing and blaming others. This certainly applies to domestic-violence defendants but also to alcoholics, substance abusers and sex offenders. They’ve all been living dual lives, keeping secrets and avoiding responsibility.


Whether the defendants are charged with a sex offense, domestic violence, driving while intoxicated or another crime, many will avoid facing themselves and what they have done for as long as they are allowed to do so. That is human nature.

Accountability can start in court. A defendant who does not admit the facts of what he did is not likely to be a positive participant in a batterer’s, sex-offender or substance-abuse program.

Not every defendant will change, but the possibility of doing so is maximized by requiring admissions. A good time to break through the denial and minimization is in the courtroom at the guilty plea.

A judge who requires factual admissions in a plea allocution will get them. If no admissions are required to plead guilty, usually none will be made. In my experience, people will not admit their criminal behavior unless required to do so. Another way of saying it is: Defendants take the easy way out when allowed to.

When I was judge, I spent a lot of effort trying to get defendants to comply with the treatment programs they needed. Treatment conditions for drugs and for mental-health issues were often required for pre-trial release while a case was pending and also as sentence conditions if the person pleaded guilty.

My goal was for the defendant to learn, change and not repeat the criminal behavior. The odds of that happening, of the treatment program being a real opportunity that the defendant benefits from, are greatly increased if they actually admit the facts of what they are pleading guilty to.


If defendants are allowed to continue denying, that denial can last for months. It is unrealistic to expect treatment programs to be effective if they are sent clients who are not ready to be there. The denial prevents defendants from learning anything and interferes with the progress of others in the group.

Even if the defendant’s behavior does not change, there are other reasons the community benefits when there are detailed factual admissions. Especially in child sex abuse and other sexual offenses, the defendant may have told the victim that no one will believe her and may have told his family that the victim is lying. Family and friends of both of them may have chosen sides, some doubting the truth of the accusation.

To hear those defendants reach the point where they admit the truth of what they previously said was a false allegation can be an immense benefit for the victim, dispels the stereotype that children and women frequently make false accusations and helps educate everyone.

For the defendant, being honest allows you to move forward, to change, perhaps to make amends. The future does not have to be the same as the past, and you can choose not to defined by your past.

In the words of Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, “Your identity is not the same as your biography.”

Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.