Is It Ethical to Plead Not Guilty?

The other day, I spoke to a person who said it is wrong for a guilty person to plead not guilty in court. I could see where the person was coming from, but he was wrong. He was taking the words “not guilty” too literally. Those words do not operate in a vacuum; they are part of our legal system. Our legal system establishes a presumption of innocence for every person charged with a crime and places a burden on the government of proving the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When a person utters the words “not guilty” in court, all the players (such as the judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer) understand that the person is requiring the government to carry its burden. Furthermore, all the players expect the overwhelming majority of defendants to plead not guilty at their arraignments. So, when a person enters a not-guilty plea, he is not being deceptive or dishonest; he is doing what is expected of him by the system and its players. It is perfectly ethical for a person to plead not guilty even if the person believes himself to be guilty as sin.

Jeremy Richey

4 Responses to “Is It Ethical to Plead Not Guilty?”


  1. 1 Snacky January 2, 2009 at 4:40 am

    Interesting post. But I believe that pleading guilty, if one actually is, is probably the right thing to do:

    * Why force the prosecution to carry and meet this burden? Why cause the court time and money to be wasted?

    I don’t see how your argument is distinguished from “plead not guilty because you can.”

    I think there are other reasons as well that it’s not ethical to plead not-guilty if one knows that one actually is:

    For example, the effect of the plea on the public discourse and culture. I think I could argue that it’s detrimental to public confidence in the legal system to have guilty people plead not-guilty, and maintain their innocence.


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