The Broken State of US White-Collar Criminal Prosecutions

The case of the "NatWest 3" has been all a staple of the UK press

all year, but never seems to have got much traction on this side of the pond.

In a nutshell, three UK bankers were extradited to the US to face Enron-related

charges, despite the fact that the US showed no evidence of any crime. They’ve

now taken

a plea bargain, and Martin

Wolf is on top form:

To my mind, this system is tantamount to extracting confessions of guilt

under a form of psychological torture. That torture consists of the reasonable

fear of being found guilty and fear of the length of time one might then serve

in prison and of what might happen while one was there. All but exceptionally

brave people will confess to almost anything to escape even the possibility

of torture. In the same way, the majority of people would surely confess to

almost anything to avoid the possibility of spending the rest of their lives

in prison. Recognition of the meaninglessness of confessions extracted under

threat of torture was the main reason civilised jurisdictions abandoned its

use. The same objection applies to pleas of guilty made under the kind of

plea bargaining employed in the case of the NatWest three.

If the US legal system receives no respect even in the UK, then it is surely

badly broken. I am generally less opposed to harsh sentences for white-collar

criminals than most, on the grounds that most white-collar crimes go undetected,

most detected white-collar crimes go unprosecuted, and many prosecuted white-collar

crimes end in acquittal. Which means that punishments have to be harsh

if they’re to have any deterrent effect at all. But even I find it impossible

to justify the US prosecutors’ behavior in the NatWest 3 case.

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