Back in 1995, when I was 20 and very, very stupid, I was arrested and charged with open murder. That’s a term used in Michigan to mean that a prosecutor can wait to decide whether they'll try to convict you of first- or second-degree murder, or manslaughter.
Sometime early in that process, my lawyer passed on a message from the district attorney representing our great state. They wanted to know whether I'd testify against my co-defendant, he told me. Having been the one who actually committed the crime, I politely declined. I often wonder how many guilty men and women across this nation snatch up those types of deals each and every day, condemning who knows how many innocent souls to decades (or possibly lifetimes) of abuse, neglect and despair behind bars.
A week or so later, my lawyer told me the state had offered a new deal. He said they were willing to drop first-degree murder if I’d plead guilty to second-degree murder. In return, I would receive a sentence of 18 to 40 years in prison, plus two years for the firearm I’d used.
My lawyer informed me that under no circumstances was I to take such a deal.
“Why?” I asked, confused, as we sat across from one another in a filthy, graffiti-covered steel cubicle in a Detroit jail that smelled of vomit. I mean, he and I both knew full well that I had shot my victim, and that I was therefore guilty. (Per my grandmother’s instructions, I had told him everything, leaving nothing out.)
“Well, for a few reasons,” my lawyer replied. He wore an expensive-looking suit, while I wore a pair of green scrubs that reeked of their previous wearer’s body odor. “The state never offers you the best deal up front. The average sentence handed out for a murder plea in Detroit is probably somewhere between 10 to 15 years. And this has been all over the news. They want this case to go away, Jerry. Plus, even if you end up convicted of second-degree murder, you’re still only looking at a sentence in the high teens. So why not have your day in court?”
Why not indeed?
Early on, this lawyer had informed me there was zero chance that I’d be convicted of first-degree murder, and that evidence supported this. Therefore, why wouldn’t I accept my constitutionally guaranteed trial? All kids are taught in school that justice means getting a trial, right?
Back in the Wayne County jail, nestled in the heart of Detroit, older career-criminals kept urging me to negotiate the best deal possible and plead guilty. They told every first-timer this.
“Listen, young buck. If you go to trial and lose, they’re going to throw the book at you. The system’s broken. They can’t afford thousands of trials, so they punish those who risk it and lose. That way, the next guy takes the deal—guilty or not—and is grateful for it.”
But having grown up being taught the system works, I didn’t believe them. To me, at the age of 20, what they were saying sounded ridiculous.
Just to be safe, though, I asked my attorney. “If I go to trial, will I be treated more harshly for it if we lose?”
He chuckled. “No. Not you.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked, confused. “Not me?”
He sighed. “Look, Jerry, this is going to sound unfair, but you’re white. That’s one of the reasons I instructed you not to take the state’s plea deal.” He shrugged apologetically. “If you were one of my black clients, my advice would have been different. As a lawyer, I take every factor into account when I plan for a case. And unfortunately, more often than not, race plays a major role. For instance, we’re going to ask for a Detroit jury, not a Wayne County jury, because a Detroit jury will be mostly black, and black people distrust the police and the system. And they're relying on circumstantial evidence; their case revolves around the police and their procedures.”
I took my lawyer’s advice, though deep down I didn’t want to. I had killed a man; to me it seemed fair that I plead guilty. (Though to be honest, I was also scared to death of prison, so I clung to any hope no matter how slim.)
The lawyer called my grandmother and convinced her to convince me not to take the next offer the state made, which was even better, somewhere around 12 years. He told her that we had a great chance of winning.
So I had my day in court. And lost. Which, honestly, came as no real surprise. Again, I knew that I was guilty.
The surprise came 30 days later when my judge sentenced me to 40 to 60 years in prison, plus two more for the gun.
I can still see the look of disgust on her face as she sentenced me. She believed that I had wasted her time. And under the current system, she was right. Those days used for my trial could have been used for someone who actually needed it.
I wish I would have listened to those career-criminals. They had known the truth, as unconstitutional as it is.
Where I disagree with the State of Michigan is the 40- to 60-year sentence. The day before trial, if I had taken that 12-year deal, the state would have considered justice served. I would have been shipped off to prison, served nine or 10 years, then paroled back into society. Yet after choosing to exercise my constitutional right to a jury trial, justice then somehow required a 42-year sentence instead? This makes no sense from a legal, moral, or financial point of view. Just think, if I had rebuffed my lawyer, I would have been out of prison 13 or so years ago, and yeah, justice still would have been served. And I would have been able to marry, have children and build a retirement plan.
Now, when I’m released, I’ll be old, childless and a financial burden on the government, both state and federal.
Please don’t misconstrue this for insensitivity. I am well aware of the fact that I robbed my victim of a chance at all of those things I just mentioned. And from the bottom of my heart I am sincerely, sincerely sorry for that.
I just want to point out that this thing is broken.
For one, prosecutors offer deals for testimony leading to the easiest convictions (regardless of guilt), because it’s all about conviction rates. Imagine if I’d agreed to sell out my co-defendant, a man innocent of murder, even though I knew I was guilty.
For two, judges shouldn’t be forced to feel like they don’t have the time to offer everyone a trial. That way, the innocent and guilty alike can enjoy the day in court they are guaranteed. The government will no longer need to decide what someone is guilty of by offering them a plea deal; a jury will decide. Smarter minds than mine will have to figure out how to make this all work, but I suspect it will come down to more money for judges and juries and a lot less prosecution of insanely stupid laws. Focus on the murders, I say.
The true experts are those of us who have lived through it. Been mangled by it.
Hell, my schedule is open for the next decade or so.
Jerry Metcalf, 44, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony; he was convicted of both in 1996.