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[Opinion] Dealings Between Prosecutors and Suspects

Posted December. 31, 2008 05:31,   


In American movies, a prosecutor and a defense attorney often negotiate over the defendant’s potential sentence. This is called plea bargaining, in which the prosecutor lessens the severity of punishment if the suspect confesses to his or her crime. Robert Kim, a Korean American who worked as a computer expert for the U.S. Navy, sought plea bargaining after being arrested for spying in 1996, but was given the maximum sentence. Prosecution immunity is a system in which a suspect can either avoid punishment or get a lighter sentence in return for testifying against a third party.

Prosecutor General Lim Chae-jin in October emphasized the need for the plea bargain system in Korea. Subsequently new Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han said his ministry will introduce immunity in his New Year briefing to President Lee Myung-bak. If a person who offers a bribe or someone who knows a public servant taking kickbacks testifies against the guilty, prosecutors could offer lesser punishment. Notably, investigators often have trouble cracking down on bribery because those who give and take bribes refuse to talk. This difficulty for prosecutors is understandable, because the methods of bribery are getting cleverer, as shown by the corruption probes into the elder brother of former President Roh Moo-hyun and public companies.

In reality, Korean prosecutors have used plea bargaining once in a while, openly or in secret. A case in point is the non-indictment of Lee Ik-chi, former president of Hyundai Securities who testified that he gave huge sums of money as bribes to Kwon Roh-gap and Park Jie-won under the Kim Dae-jung administration. Many, however, are either worried about or oppose negotiating with criminals. The plea bargain system debuted as a measure to reduce the high cost of investigation, indictment and trial in countries with a solid jury system such as the United States. They are systems unique to the United States, where securing a confession is hard due to a suspect’s right to silence and lawyer activities.

More than anything, cutting a deal with criminals over their sentences is faulty in the sense that it runs counter to the concept of justice. Such a measure could have prosecutors focus on negotiation rather than scientific investigation, and could damage their credibility due to under-the-table dealings. Controversy could also rise over equity if different punishments are given for the same crimes, in defiance of the principle that the punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime. As such, the Korean justice system will thrive only after more prosecutors relentlessly and persistently pursue evidence rather than seek a plea bargain.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)