Phillip Bivens was released yesterday after serving thirty years of a life sentence for a rape-murder in 1979. As reported by the New York Times, Bivens and a codefendant pled guilty in the case, while a third defendant was convicted by a jury. New DNA analysis of the rape kit exonerated all three men earlier this year, although only Bivens was still serving time — one codefendant died in prison, and the other had already been released for medical reasons. Little evidence connected the men to the crime aside from their own incriminating statements, which had apparently been coerced from them.
DNA exonerations in recent years have done a great deal to highlight the reliability problems with confessions that are uncorroborated by physical evidence. I wonder, though, to what extent these problems have really sunk in with the lay public. On their face, confessions seem such extraordinarily compelling evidence — what could be more reliable than a statement so directly and profoundly against personal interest?
The Mississippi case is also interesting as an illustration of reliability problems with guilty pleas, particularly when the death penalty is available. Bivens entered his false guilty plea in order to avoid facing the death penalty. My own views about the death penalty are neither strongly for nor strongly against, but I have long thought that the biggest problems with the death penalty are not in the very small number of cases in which it is actually imposed, but in the possibly much larger number of cases in which fear of the death penalty leads to a guilty plea and an undeserved life sentence.