As I opened up my Sports Law class to the Graduate Students at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, last evening, one of my most inquisitive students spoke up, and in an evaporative manner asked, “Before we start professor, I need to ask you, how can Andrian Peterson plead not guilty, we all know he did it.”
After a few minutes of thought, and some discussions with other classmates, the light bulbs went off and the answer was obvious: Adrian Peterson plead not guilty because, at this stage of the proceedings, he IS NOT GUILTY.
Adrian Peterson, like every American, is innocent until the State (in this case Texas) proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty for the crimes for which he has been charged.
A defendant who enters a not guilty plea is refuting the charges that have been brought against him or her. There are reasons why a defendant may choose to do such: (1) an innocent defendant may choose so in order to have the opportunity to have his or her case tried before a jury, as a guilty plea will not go to trial; (2) as a legal strategy where the defendant feels that the state has a week case or protest the type of charge being brought, seeking to have it reduced to a lesser charge; and (3) defendants may also choose to enter not guilty pleas because they have a defense to the criminal charge.
Obviously, anyone who contests an accusation and wants their day in court will enter a plea of not guilty regardless of whether or not he or she is guilty. Many convicted criminals have pled not guilty, even though evidence showed they committed the crime.
Additionally, a defendant can revoke a not guilty plea during the course of the proceedings. In fact, this is sometimes why a defendant may choose to enter a plea of not guilty at first. Changes to not guilty pleas often occur when a plea bargain is made. The defendant may change a not guilty plea to a guilty plea in exchange for a lesser charge associated with a lighter sentence.
It is interesting, however, that Adrian Peterson never entered a plea during his first court appearance with a spokesperson stating, “I don’t think the judge ever asked for a plea. As we said yesterday, if the judge asks, Peterson will plead not guilty.” And as of today, it’s not clear when he will enter such a plea.
What was accomplished at the hearing was that Peterson’s defense attorney accentuate three talking points about the case:
- Peterson’s trial can’t get here fast enough.
- Peterson is having his name/reputation unfairly smeared as he awaits trial.
- Peterson is a good family man with the support of his community, who made a parenting decision that is open to interpretation.
This strategy makes sense. The faster this trial arrives, the less chance of tainting a jury pool. The faster it arrives, the less time the prosecution has to gather additional information against Peterson. And the faster it arrives, the less time the media has to dig further into Peterson’s life for unflattering stories.
The bottom line involved in this case lies in the difference between “punishing a child” and “abusing a child.”
The “abuse” term will be the centerpiece of the trial. Corporal punishment is legal in Texas, but standards are nebulous. For example, a belt is allowable, but not an extension cord. Striking a child as a form of reprimand is allowable, but leaving a mark on a child is not. Somewhere in between the line is blurred and that’s where a jury comes in to decide, decide with one question in mind: Was punishment specifically excessive enough to be considered abuse?
According to Texas law, a defendant can be convicted of injury to a child if he or she causes bodily or mental injury “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence” or cause such harm by omission. The crime is punishable by up to two years in a state jail and a $1,000 fine.
The prosecution has made it clear that it wants Peterson to be recognized for having “abused” his child. Any plea out of that phrase would be seen as a failure.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, when asked about the Adrian Peterson plea hearing, commented that administering punishment to a player who is waiting for his legal case to move forward after an arrest can be complex.
“The league and owners obviously understand the balance between due process and protecting the integrity of the game,” he said. “Sometimes that puts you in a difficult position.”
Commissioner Goodell said there were discussions whether or not to implement a new, interim step — such as paid leave — to the process. The Commissioner then reiterated that domestic violence and the league’s discipline for violators of its conduct policy are serious issues, stating, “A majority of our players are great people and men. Domestic violence is not just an NFL issue, it’s a societal issue.”