US

Trial or deal? Some driven to plead guilty, later exonerated

  • In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 photo, James Ochoa poses for a photo outside his home in Grand Prairie, Texas. Ochoa, who was on probation for drug possession when he was arrested for a carjacking, pleaded guilty to second-degree armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the carjacking to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days. More than 300 of the nearly 1,800 people who have been exonerated, or found innocent, since 1989 pleaded guilty even though they were innocent, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

    In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 photo, James Ochoa poses for a photo outside his home in Grand Prairie, Texas. Ochoa, who was on probation for drug possession when he was arrested for a carjacking, pleaded guilty to second-degree armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the carjacking to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days. More than 300 of the nearly 1,800 people who have been exonerated, or found innocent, since 1989 pleaded guilty even though they were innocent, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. (AP Photo/LM Otero)  (The Associated Press)

  • **HOLD FOR STORY BY ALANNA DURKIN RICHER ** In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 photo, James Ochoa poses for a photo outside his home in Grand Prairie, Texas. Ochoa, who was on probation for drug possession when he was arrested for a carjacking, pleaded guilty to second-degree armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the carjacking to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days. More than 300 of the nearly 1,800 people who have been exonerated, or found innocent, since 1989 pleaded guilty even though they were innocent, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

    **HOLD FOR STORY BY ALANNA DURKIN RICHER ** In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 photo, James Ochoa poses for a photo outside his home in Grand Prairie, Texas. Ochoa, who was on probation for drug possession when he was arrested for a carjacking, pleaded guilty to second-degree armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the carjacking to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days. More than 300 of the nearly 1,800 people who have been exonerated, or found innocent, since 1989 pleaded guilty even though they were innocent, according to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations. (AP Photo/LM Otero)  (The Associated Press)

Suspects in criminal cases across the U.S. can sometimes find themselves with a daunting choice even if they didn't do anything wrong: go to trial and face a potentially long prison sentence or plead guilty in return for lesser punishment.

According to an estimate by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School, more than 300 of about 1,900 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 pleaded guilty.

Last year, 68 of 157 exonerations were cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty, more than any previous year.

Critics say the numbers reflect an overwhelmed criminal justice system. They say public defenders have more cases than they can handle and courts can save the government money with plea bargains compared with costly trials.