On Thursday, December 13, 2018, Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights activist, appeared before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where she pleaded guilty to conspiring “to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government, specifically the Russian Federation, without prior notification to the Attorney General.”
As part of the plea deal, Butina, who now faces a maximum of five years in prison and the prospect of deportation, waived her right of appeal.
Butina has further agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities in an ongoing investigation.
In July, Butina was arrested and charged with conspiracy and working as an undeclared foreign agent of the Russian government. Prosecutors alleged she sought to cultivate ties with U.S. political groups and individuals – primarily conservatives – on behalf of Alexander Torshin, who resigned as deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank in November. Torshin, a former Russian senator, has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The former member of the Russian Council of Federation, Torshin was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April along with other Russian businessmen and politicians for “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Butina pleaded guilty so that she could be “released as soon as possible and return to [her] homeland.”
"I understand this woman: she is staying in the most difficult conditions and faced specific kind[s] of tortures for months: they either forcibly wake her up and let her walk in the night or place her in a solitary confinement cell, and so on. I have reasons to assume that the goal of the [detention] conditions that were created for her was to break her will and make her admit to something that she most probably did not commit," Lavrov said.
Lavrov’s claims are unsubstantiated and misleading.
In the U.S. 97% of Cases Resolved by Plea
Regarding the plea bargaining system, Catherine Gallagher, an associate professor at George Mason University’s Criminology, Law and Society unit, told Polygraph.info that in the U.S., majority of cases “end up in a plea,” and very few people are actually tried in a court of law.
“Maybe three percent of all cases actually go to trial. It was very unusual that [former Trump campaign chair Paul] Manafort, for example, went to trial. Most cases end up in a plea.”
Her view lines up with an 84-page report released in July by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) on bargaining over criminal charges and defendants’ pleas.
In it, the NACDL found that “after a 50 year decline, fewer than 3% of federal criminal cases result in a trial.”
It continued: “With more than 97% of criminal cases being resolved by plea in a constitutional system predicated upon the Sixth Amendment right to a trial, the fact of imbalance and injustice in the system is self-evident.”
The report said that in most primary offense categories, “the average post-trial sentence was more than triple the average post-plea sentence.”
In Butina’s case, she originally faced up to 15 years in prison, but pleaded to a maximum of five years.
The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice in the U.S., similarly found that 97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions are the results of guilty pleas.
Writing for the Atlantic in 2017, Emily Yoffe came to the following conclusion in a report from Nashville, Tennessee.
“According to District Attorney Glenn Funk, Nashville–Davidson County handles about 100,000 criminal cases a year, 70 percent of which are misdemeanors, 30 percent felonies. Last year, attorneys in the public defender’s office dealt with 20,000 misdemeanors and 4,900 felony cases. Of all the defendants processed in Nashville–Davidson County last year, only 86 had their cases resolved at trial,” she wrote.
Based on such statistics, U.S. District Judge John Kane argues, “the so-called trial court is not primarily a trial court at all. It is a plea bargaining court.”
Lavrov’s ‘Propaganda War’
As a result, Gallagher does not believe there was anything particularly unusual about Butina accepting a plea deal.
“If her lawyers had thought there was a chance of going to trial and prevailing, then that’s what they would have done. Her lawyers were required to offer her the plea option,” she told Polygraph.info.
Gallagher said there is an incentive for every pre-trial detainee to take a plea.
“There’s a phrase called: the process is the punishment. You serve your whole punishment before you even get your sentence,” Gallagher said.
As for the disinformation value of Lavrov’s statements, Gallagher said that claiming Butina was unduly pressured to plea is “very hard to argue in the U.S. because it’s the norm.”
“If America is the audience [for Lavrov’s statements] they are not going to win this propaganda war. But in Russia it’s easy,” Gallagher said.
Butina Denied any Physical or Psychological Pressure
Regarding allegations of torture, Polygraph.info previously found there is a basis for saying extended time in solitary does constitute mistreatment or torture.
In 2013, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Juan Méndez, urged that solitary confinement, if imposed at all, is only used “in exceptional circumstances.”
In 2011, Mendez said solitary confinement should be banned as “a punishment or extortion technique.” But that conclusion is not universal, as some scholarly studies have concluded otherwise.
Gallagher said that while she personally considers solitary confinement to be “a form of torture,” that view is currently not shared by the United States Supreme Court.
“Isolation is brutalizing -- not because you’re being abused, but because it’s very tough. It breaks a person in different ways. Some people are more resilient than others. No one comes out better than they come in,” Gallagher said.
“Did it in fact expedite her willingness to plea? One can absolutely hypothesize yes, ” Gallagher added.
But she said that ultimately, “whether or not Butina was in isolation, based on the evidence, it’s very likely her lawyers would have pushed her to take the plea.”
As it stands, there is no evidence that Butina faced conditions that are peculiar to the U.S. criminal justice system. The argument over reforming that system is a separate issue. In earlier media reports, the U.S. Justice Department did not respond to questions regarding Butina’s isolation.
During the hearing for the change of plea Butina and her lawyers denied any physical or psychological pressure telling the judge the decision to enter the plea deal was voluntary.
Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll told the court his client is allowed a “time out of her cell, daily activities and visitations, including those from the representatives of the Russian foreign ministry,” and that she is “doing well and competent.”
As for Lavrov’s claim that Butina confessed to the crime she did not commit, Butina’s own words contradict this statement.
When asked by the judge, “Are you pleading guilty not for any other reason but because you are guilty?” Butina answered, “Yes, guilty.”
Thus, Lavrov’s claim that Butina was pressured to confess to a crime she did not commit is misleading at best.