26-year-old Jerry Frank Townsend suffers from a mental disability. Despite having the mental capacity of an eight-year-old, Jerry pled guilty to the rape of a pregnant woman in Miami in 1979. Police began to take Jerry to different crime scenes around the state, resulting in six different confessions for various murders in South Florida throughout the seventies. This resulted in seven concurrent life sentences, guaranteeing Jerry would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Jerry was in prison for nearly 22 years before DNA evidence cleared him of two murders in Broward County and eventually exonerated him of all the crimes. He was released at the age of forty-nine on June 15th, 2001. Now we know that his confessions were the result of his intellectual disability which encouraged him to give the police the answers they wanted to hear, a common adaptive practice for someone with his mental capacities.
Innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not at an alarming rate. Nearly 10% of the nation’s 347 DNA exonerations are innocent people who entered guilty pleas and didn’t go to trial. This is why we are teaming up with the Innocence Project in New York and Actual Innocence to bring awareness to the issue with the launch of their new site Guilty Plea Problem on January 23rd.
Jerry Frank Townsend is not an outlier. Sometimes, it can feel like a guilty plea is the only thing standing between you and the death penalty. Ordinary people are faced with an extraordinary choice every day: confess to a crime you did not commit or receive a harsher sentence in court. Through this campaign, we hope to address the growing issue of a criminal justice system that puts pressure on people to plead guilty.
To help spread the message, be sure to check out GuiltyPleaProblem.Org and sign up for their updates. We will also be posting more information and facts about the reality of guilty pleas on our Facebook and Twitter.