Irrational Confessions

Did Faisal Shahzad have anything to gain from pleading guilty?

Faisal Shahzad. Click image to expand.
Faisal Shahzad

Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty to all 10 charges against him Monday. Prosecutors insist that they haven’t struck a deal to reduce his sentence, which will be announced on Oct. 5. What does Shahzad stand to gain from pleading guilty rather than taking his chances at trial?

A soapbox and his pride. The overwhelming majority of those who plead guilty to a crime do so in exchange for a reduced sentence, while some tiny number do so because they are burdened with regret and want to purge their consciences. Shahzad doesn’t appear to fit into either category of confessors. Because he copped to two counts of using a bomb in a violent crime, he will receive at least one mandatory life sentence no matter what. (Altogether, he could get up to six life terms and 60 additional years in prison.) He can’t be angling for brownie points with the parole board, since Congress abolished federal parole in 1987. And he failed to express any remorse over the crime at the hearing Monday. In light of these facts, the most likely motives for his guilty plea are pride in his cause and a desire to announce his political views to the world.

While a trial would have kept Shahzad in the news far longer, the plea hearing offered a better opportunity to monologue. In order to accept a guilty plea, a judge has to chat with the defendant long enough to determine whether he is mentally sound, sober, and aware of the consequences of his decision. Judges also typically ask for full details of the crime to make sure the defendant’s story is consistent with the known facts. (False confessions are surprisingly common. One study showed 247 of them in a single Illinois county over a decade.) This back-and-forth gave Shahzad plenty of time to brag over his failed plot and deliver a harangue about U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. Shahzad even brought a prepared statement, but the judge wouldn’t let him read it. That shouldn’t have surprised him. September 11th co-conspirator Zacharias Moussaoui spent most of his pre-trial hearings jousting with the judge for the chance to make grandiose anti-American speeches.

Even though Shahzad’s guilty plea probably wasn’t in his best interests in the traditional sense, there was very little his attorney could have done to prevent it. Attorneys have the authority to dictate strategy, but major decisions like pleading belong to the client. If Shahzad’s lawyer were convinced that Shahzad was making a poor choice, her only option would be to tell the judge she needed more time to make sure her client understood his actions or to conduct a mental health exam. Defendants occasionally change their minds after a cooling-off period.

There is an outside chance Shahzad is thinking more strategically than we realize. A special provision in the U.S. code eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for defendants who help apprehend or convict other criminals. The process can be applied either before or after sentencing. The government rarely accepts help from criminals who forced them through the expense and trouble of a trial, especially when the process might require them to reveal secret sources and procedures. Shahzad’s plea may help keep his options open. But even if the feds are interested in his help, there are no guarantees. The accused must do everything the government asks—duties can range from wearing a wire to testifying in court—before prosecutors determine whether the assistance has been good enough to warrant a shaving of his prison term.

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Explainer thanks Stephanos Bibas of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Daniel C. Richman of Columbia Law School.

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