Defining Coercion During Plea Negotiations

Samantha Luna

Advisor: Allison D. Redlich, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: Sue-Ming Yang, Robert Norris, Saul Kassin

Online Location, Online
April 20, 2023, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


For guilty pleas to be considered valid, courts are tasked with ensuring that pleas are entered knowingly, intelligently, voluntarily and with a factual basis of guilt (see Boykin v. Alabama, 1969; Brady v. United States, 1970). Despite voluntariness being an integral requirement for the acceptance of guilty pleas, what constitutes voluntariness, and its antithesis coercion, remains relatively unclear, largely subjective, and contested. This ambiguity in our understanding of coercion has consequences for the integrity of our criminal justice system. Most notably, without a clear understanding of coercion in plea negotiation settings, the legal requirements for voluntariness cannot be properly applied to guilty pleas. This is especially problematic, given that currently used “hard-bargaining tactics” (see, Alkon, 2017) to obtain guilty pleas (e.g., overcharging and threatening enhancements) have come under fire for being coercive and for contributing to wrongful convictions (e.g., see Dervan, 2012).
This dissertation tested a theoretical definition of coercion during plea negotiations that was developed by synthesizing philosophical, legal, and psychological theory, and examined evaluators’ assessments of plea coercion claims. More specifically, two studies were conducted to answer four main research questions. Study 1 was an experimental plea negotiation study that involved defendant participants (and confederate defense attorneys) negotiating with mock, confederate prosecutors in theoretically coercive and non-coercive situations. This study addressed two research questions: (RQ1) How do theoretically coercive situations impact the plea decision-making of guilty and innocent defendants? and (RQ2) Do perceptions of coercion, fairness, evidence strength, and probability of conviction at trial mediate relations between theoretical coercion, defendant guilt, and defendant plea decisions? Study 2 involved participants listening to summarized oral arguments and half of participants also watching a recorded plea negotiation in its entirety. Participants then evaluated a defendant’s post-sentencing request to withdraw their plea. This study addressed the last two research questions: (RQ3) How does the presence of theoretical coercion impact evaluators’ assessments of a defendant’s request to withdraw their plea post-sentencing? and (RQ4) Does the ability to view a recorded plea negotiation improve evaluators’ assessments of plea coercion?
Findings from this research shed light on how theoretical elements of coercion interact to impact plea decision-making and evaluations of coercion. In addition, this research advances our understanding of which plea tactics and coercive elements may place innocent defendants at the greatest risk for false guilty pleas. An empirically tested definition of coercion will also contribute to the academic and legal literatures and to a greater understanding of coercion. Finally, this research provides insight into how evaluators (similar to judges) perceive plea negotiations and whether a proposed policy reform of recording negotiations (Turner, 2020; Wilford & Khairalla, 2019) improves the ability to discern coercion/voluntariness.