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Real-Time Confessions


We live in an age of instant communication, where the most bizarre and often shocking events imaginable come to us in real time. Last week’s confession on YouTube by a young Ohio man, Matthew Cordle, that he “killed another man” while driving drunk set a new (high or low) standard for personal revelations on social media.

Cordle’s three-and-half-minute confession removed all question of guilt and innocence in his case. He admitted his drunk driving killed Vincent Canzani. He stated that he would take full responsibility for his act by pleading guilty and accepting whatever punishment a judge decided.

Ben Bycel
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Paul Wellman

Ben Bycel

Unlike the public debate on many high-profile cases, such as the Zimmerman murder case, the debate here is not about guilt or innocence. The discussion centers on whether someone who commits a crime and then takes personal responsibility for it should be given any credit or benefit in the criminal justice system. Does it depend on the crime? Where should the line be drawn — on violent versus nonviolent crimes? What about the age of the accused? What if he is a repeat offender?

The video confession raised numerous ethical issues about an individual’s moral and legal duty to take responsibility for her acts. Moral and legal responsibilities are not always one and the same. It is clear that Cordle had a legal responsibility not to drive drunk. But did he have a moral responsibility to admit his guilt, even before he was charged with a crime? We have a presumption of innocence in our criminal justice system for those charged with crimes.

Matthew Cordle made a decision to forgo that presumption of innocence. He accepted his moral responsibility for his deadly act and made it clear he was willing to suffer the consequences. Was his remorse genuine? No one really knows; it’s impossible to delve into the mind of another to judge his or her true motives.

Cordle’s confession however does not make him a hero, honorable, or less culpable. But does he deserve some credit for his action?

Many in the blogosphere believe that his confession should not influence or benefit his legal outcome, even if it avoids costly and lengthy proceedings. The victim’s daughter, in this case, maintains that Cordle’s slickly produced video confession is no more than a tactical move to gain sympathy from the judge who could reduce Cordle’s sentence. Others insist that if Cordle benefits from his video confession, it will open the floodgates and that others accused of crimes will make similar videotapes or do other “such stunts” to scam the system.

Irrespective of how these critics feel, most criminal jurisdictions have a plea bargaining system in which defendants receive some benefit from taking legal responsibility for their bad acts, especially early in the legal process, which avoids costly motions and trials.

Most criminal law experts believe that the court system simply cannot handle caseloads without some form of plea bargaining.

Judges in many states including California must take into consideration a number of factors when they sentence someone who pleads to or is found guilty of a crime(s). One factor is whether “the defendant voluntarily acknowledged wrongdoing before arrest or at an early stage of the criminal process.”

It has been my experience that most of us need some sort of inducement to take responsibility, even for just about anything that we were responsible for that simply did not turn out well.

So why would we expect anyone charged with a crime to consider taking any responsibility, legal or moral, unless he is given some incentive?

I don’t think we can. What do you think?

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics.

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