Strategic Litigation

Amicus brief in support of George Alvarez


George Alvarez knew that he had acted in self-defence, but that it was his word against the detention guard. Why would someone believe him, when he’d just been arrested on suspicion of burglary and public intoxication and remained in the custody of the officials who assaulted him? That’s the reason George Alvarez pleaded guilty to a charge of having assaulted a public servant.

Alvarez was given an eight year suspended sentence, on condition that he undertook a treatment programme for substance abuse. He didn’t complete the treatment, and so the court revoked his suspended sentence, and ordered him to serve eight years in prison.

George Alvarez was 17 years old.

Four years later, he found out that a video existed of the incident, and that it proved his version of events.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded in October 2010 that Alvarez was actually innocent of committing the offense. That was over seven years ago, so why are we talking about it now?

Fair Trials, together with pro-bono partner Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, have submitted an opinion in the case as it is heard5th circuit in the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeal – where the question will be asked as to whether the government should have disclosed evidence which would have helped George before he pleaded guilty.

The opinion is based in part on the research conducted as part of The Disappearing Trial – the report produced by Fair Trials and Freshfields which examined how trial waiver systems were used across 90 jurisdictions – and what protections different countries use to ensure the best protections for defendants.

Many countries require the disclosure of this kind of evidence before a defendant enters into any kind of plea agreement. If Alvarez had been in the same situation in any number of countries, including Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, France, Finland, even Russia – he would have been able to receive the video proving his innocence before pleading guilty to anything.

Fair Trials makes the submission that exculpatory evidence, like the video in this case, must be made available to people before they’re forced to make a decision that could have such far reaching consequences on the rest of their lives.

In the US, 97% of federal convictions and a similar number for state level convictions come as a result of a guilty plea, rather than a full trial. As Supreme Court Justice Kennedy stated in 2012 “Horse-trading determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”

And this is why it matters. For many defendants in the US, a plea bargain is the only way to proceed without imposing significant costs on their families or rolling the dice in a high-stakes trial, regardless of the factual guilt or innocence. This isn’t what justice should be about.

What happened to George Alvarez does not fit with any modern conception of fairness, and it was so easily avoidable. Fair Trials’ brief sets out why we believe that the government should be required to disclose any exculpatory evidence in its possession before a guilty plea can be entered by a defendant.

Read our report The Disappearing Trial, and our Amicus Brief.