Not typically a fan of American jurisprudence, Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Commissioner David Baines wondered Thursday night if it was time for a change in the English, and Caymanian, legal systems to allow information obtained as part of a plea bargain with a criminal suspect to be entered into court evidence.
A plea bargain, often referred to in the U.S. as “turning states evidence,” occurs when a criminal suspect who has been caught in the act agrees to give up other individuals involved in the same crime in exchange for leniency in sentencing.
Mr. Baines’s comments came during a Thursday night lecture at the University College of the Cayman Islands where the keynote speaker was veteran U.S. attorneys investigator Jack Blum. Mr. Blum is well-known internationally for his work in several corruption and fraud cases dating back to the 1970s.
“On many of the cases you described, you use the phrase ‘we were able to cut a deal’ and get somebody further up [the criminal hierarchy],” Mr. Baines said. “Could you have operated under the English common law system where to offer the deal negates its use in evidence?”
Mr. Blum admitted that this was a recurring problem in pursuing financial crime investigations across international lines, particularly in the U.K. and continental Europe.
“The favorite tool of American prosecutors is ‘look, you’re going to face the rest of your life in jail, or you’re going to come up with the materials we need to go up the chain and figure out who done it’,” Mr. Blum said.
With Cayman Islands Court of Appeal President Sir John Chadwick sitting in front of him, Mr. Baines asked: “Is it time now that the English common law system reviewed the way it looks at cutting a deal?
“Let’s be honest, no criminal turns up wanting to bare his soul, clear his heart and turn to God…unless somebody offers him a better choice for a better future,” the police commissioner said.
However, the U.S. prosecutor advised caution on the issue. “I’m not sure that our system doesn’t get abused as well,” he said.
In a slightly different context, plea bargaining practices have come under fire in the U.S. recently. In particular, a U.S. $285 million settlement between Citigroup and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over the sale of mortgage-backed securities raised the issue of whether large and wealthy corporations could avoid any admission of liability simply by paying large sums of cash.
A U.S. district court judge rejected the settlement.
Even in much less complex criminal cases, Mr. Blum said plea bargains may backfire.
“It’s important to be certain that whatever the guy tells you as he’s bearing his soul is the truth,” Mr. Blum said. “There are plenty of people who’ve bared their souls and lied their hearts off in an effort to get off.
“[The plea bargaining process] requires both law enforcement sophistication and a real judicial search for the truth.”