Guilty plea taken in Comm. v Ernest Snyder

I haven’t written much online about what happened to me. Some mix of writers’ block and PTSD has made the process both painfully frustrating and frustratingly painful. But last night I saw something that troubled me, and decided today to write about it, a situation less personal to me than my own.

On 6/24/21 a guy named Ernest Snyder pleaded “Guilty But Mentally Ill” to Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse with a Child. The child was his girlfriend’s daughter, who told the cops he did sexual stuff to her. What is suspicious is that the daughter only accused him after he and his girlfriend had a big, blowout fight. So likely either he was molesting the daughter and she only told about it after he and her mother broke up, or her mom got her to lie to the police as a way to hurt Ernest, mom’s now-ex-boyfriend. In either situation, I feel bad for the child – but which is true?

I don’t know.

And that is the part that is troubling. Ernest pleaded guilty. He stood in open court and publicly said he did whatever she accused him of. So why can’t I, you, and everyone else be sure as to what happened?

Well to start, when Ernest pleaded guilty, he was being charged with two counts of “Rape of Child”, two counts of “Aggravated Indecent Assault of a Person Less Than 13 Years Old”, two counts of “Indecent Assault Person Less than 13 Years of Age” and a count of “Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse with a Child”. That makes 3 first-degree felonies and 2 second-degree felonies which alone are enough to result in a life sentence for a man in his late twenties.

But would an innocent person say they committed a crime they didn’t commit to avoid a life sentence? Well, yes. Even the Supreme Court has acknowledged this problem, with Justice Antonin Scalia opining that “In the United States, we have plea bargaining aplenty… It presents grave risks of prosecutorial overcharging that effectively compels an innocent defendant to avoid massive risk by pleading guilty” [1]. According to the Innocence Project, “Of those who were wrongfully convicted of murder and later cleared by DNA, 62% had confessed. [2]” And Ernest did confess, at least according to police, who said he not only confessed, but that “he said he knew this was wrong and that he should be in jail but that he would kill himself before he went to jail.” That quote from the police was printed in the local newspaper, who ran this story while Ernest was in jail still awaiting trial.

So if he did confess, why? Well, Ernest Snyder suffers from schizophrenia, and said he was in the hospital when first questioned. People with schizophrenia say crazy stuff all the time. It can be the result of several different symptoms of the disease, which include false beliefshallucinations, and disorganized thoughts and speech. Add to this the fact he was being actively questioned by a trained interrogator who was looking for admissions to be used as evidence, and it is easy to see how “randomly rambling” quickly turns into “confessing”.

And once the police have a confession as “evidence”, the odds of a guilty plea go way up. The YouTube channel Vsauce produced a great video explaining how events can snowball, using the real-life case of Joyce Ann Brown, who was convicted of murder and spent 9 years in prison because she had the same name as another woman. It can be viewed by clicking here.

Ernest later denied that his “confession” was true, but of course, neither the courts nor the police care about a denial of guilt by a criminal defendant; only an admission of guilty matters. This asymmetry helps to convict people with mental illness, as only a minority of their statements need to be incriminating, or even sensical, to result in a conviction. Police just need to talk long enough, and a schizophrenic defendant will produce a confession, as sure as infinite monkies on infinite typewriters will produce a Shakespearean play.

At sentencing, Ernest Synder received time served for 1,521 days. He spent year after year after year in the county jail, not knowing if he would ever again be free. He likely faced pressure from his court-appointed counsel to take a plea-deal, and may have simply given up. He also may not have truly understood his rights or the deal he was making.

Even if he was guilty, there was zero hard evidence against him. The prosecution took away 20 years of his life knowing that there was a chance that he was innocent.

Footnotes:

[1] Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156 (2012)
[2] The Junk Science Cops Use to Decide You’re Lying, Criminal Legal News, October 2020, VOL. 3, No. 10, pgs. 1-6 at 5

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