"One of the hardest lessons during my five years at Rikers came in the case of 23-year-old inmate Chris Barnett, who was driven by the brutality of the jail to confess to a crime he didn’t commit....[H]e’d been out for a carefree motorcycle ride when a teenager darted out from behind a bus. “It was like he fell out of the sky and was on top of my bike. Before I knew what happened, it was over.” An accident, it seemed to me...
Despite the Sixth Amendment’s heralded guarantee of a speedy trial, I learned at Rikers, trial is often years away. This would be a long wait for anyone, but for the detainee who can’t afford a couple thousand offhand in bail—which is a lot of detainees—the pretrial years must be spent behind bars. The only alternative would be the expedient plea bargain, frequently offered by the district attorney: If the accused foregoes trial and accepts some measure of guilt, he will typically receive a lighter sentence than what would have been handed down had he gone to trial and lost. But what it also means is that detainees will agree to it, not necessarily because they’re guilty, but because the pathway to trial is just too daunting.
...Chris sustained a broken hip, broken collarbone and internal injuries, but the teenager was dead. Chris denied he’d been drinking, and a Breathalyzer confirmed it. He also said he hadn’t been speeding, which was borne out by eyewitnesses as well as a police test on the tire marks. Though Chris had been neither drinking nor speeding, he still was arrested for vehicular homicide, which perplexed me, as this seemed like a clear-cut accident. But I assumed there had to be more to this. After all, I only heard the inmates' version of things.
In the sessions that followed, I learned that Chris, like most at Rikers, had been raised in a poor neighborhood, had dropped out of high school and was involved in minor skirmishes with the law. But after a couple of misdemeanor charges, he went back to school, earned a GED and was thrilled to have landed an entry-level position on Wall Street. The pay was low, but the future was promising, and Chris was smart enough to see the possibilities.
...His family lacked the resources to pay his bail, but he did have a steady girlfriend who promised to see him through the ordeal....
The district attorney was offering Chris a plea bargain of two to four years. If he accepted it, he would serve two years in prison upstate and remain on probation for the remaining two. But as part of the offer, he would also have to accept the felony. If he insisted on a trial and lost, his sentence could be in the range of eight to 10 years. There was a lot at stake here. More than anything, Chris wanted to hold on to his job and the life he was creating. But if he accepted the felony, he could say good-bye to Wall Street, and frankly most other job opportunities, forever.
As Chris hashed it over with me, he became angry. “I’m sorry this kid is dead—but I didn’t do anything wrong. He ran out from behind a bus. I wasn’t drinking and I wasn’t speeding. It was an accident! I’m not accepting this offer! Doesn’t he have any responsibility for what happened? I got hurt too! I’ll take my chances at trial.”