Skip to main content

Online confession -- morally admirable, legally damaging

By Danny Cevallos, CNN Legal Analyst
updated 5:09 PM EDT, Wed September 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ohio man confesses online to killing someone while driving drunk
  • Danny Cevallos: Matthew Cordle's video was an admirable effort to take responsibility
  • He says Cordle's candor could lead to a more severe sentence than usual
  • Cevallos: Prosecutor should take interests of justice into account

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney practicing in Philadelphia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

(CNN) -- An Ohio driver recently made a confession that he caused a fatal wrong-way crash after drinking heavily. That, by itself, nothing new. After all, every day, hundreds of suspects sign full confessions, and many more defendants plead guilty before a judge.

A person volunteering to take criminal responsibility is not a novel concept. In fact, it's commonplace procedure in police interview rooms and courthouses. Nor is it unique that these admissions are videotaped; police often tape interview confessions and courtrooms record most guilty pleas.

What's novel in this case is the way he took that responsibility: 1) On his own. 2) Online. Via video.

He took the initiative.

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos

In a remarkably well-produced, three-and-a-half minute video, Matthew Cordle admitted he killed a suburban Columbus man, said he "made a mistake" in deciding to drive that evening and urged people not to drink and drive. In making this video, it clearly appeared he was not coerced. He was not being interrogated or even interviewed by police. In fact, he volunteered this admission, stating that he was fully aware of the consequences.

Skeptics have suggested the online confession is not sincere and he only produced the video to curry favor with the court to receive a lesser sentence. Quite the contrary, Cordle has risked sealing his fate with a maximum sentence by giving this confession.

Many others have applauded this act by Cordle. Undoubtedly there is a benefit to society in taking responsibility. He not only gives the victim's family closure, but he also saves the people of the state of Ohio the cost and burden of a trial. Even the victim's ex-wife has opined that perhaps Cordle deserves some consideration for his video apology.

Bravo, right? Wrong.

While this may have appeared a morally correct thing for Cordle to do, our justice system can actually penalize those who "do the right thing" and volunteer admissions. Cordle's case just might end up as an example of this.

Drunk driving confession goes viral

In a criminal prosecution, the strongest playing card in the hand of the defendant is a guilty plea. Sometimes, it's the only card he holds.

In Cordle's case, assuming for the moment that this case was what we defense attorneys call a "dead-bang loser" (one likely to be lost at trial), then his defense attorney could have approached the prosecution and made an offer: In exchange for a lesser sentence or charges, Cordle would plead guilty, apologize to the family and save the prosecutor's office the manpower and the burden of trying the case, and ultimately, the risk of losing at trial. In return, the prosecution would agree to a lesser sentence or a lesser charge.

In this case, Cordle's voluntary mea culpa actually eliminated his strongest bargaining chip. The defense now has nothing to offer the prosecution, so the prosecution has no incentive to make any concessions in a plea offer.

Now, if this were a business transaction or negotiation, you'd say: well, that's the way business is. Too bad, so sad. That's just market forces and economic Darwinism at work. But prosecutors have a greater moral obligation than a CEO or an investor. They cannot simply exploit any weakness in the defendant's bartering position. Prosecutors have a greater moral obligation: justice. It's not an easy job at all.

So, has Cordle's prosecutor adequately considered the video? The prosecutor in this case has said he will seek the maximum sentence and suggested that his office has enough evidence to seek a conviction notwithstanding the video confession.

The maximum sentence? Is that how we should incentivize taking responsibility? After all, Cordle is partially correct in that he has spared resources and offered a judicially efficient resolution.

In the video, Cordle says: "I consulted some high-powered attorneys, who told me stories about similar cases where the drivers got off. They were convinced that they could get my blood test thrown out. And all I would have to do for that was lie. Well, I won't go down that path."

First, it's doubtful any experienced DUI lawyer really told Cordle to lie. The obvious reason is that it's unethical. But second, thanks to modern defense strategies and technology, challenging breath and blood testing has arguably never been more effective.

Recently, courts have invalidated scores of breath and blood tests for a myriad of reasons related to the reliability of the science as applied, including improper blood draws/retention, administration of tests, noncalibration of blood testing devices and improper lab procedures.

Because DUI trials can be burdensome for the prosecution, most jurisdictions have adopted some version of a pretrial program to treat this crime differently than most others.

The quid pro quo is usually this: The defendant admits to what he did, gets a one-time admission to probation and a ton of fines and fees, avoiding a criminal conviction, and the prosecution is saved the burden of calling breathalyzer operators and lab technicians to trial and avoids the risk of loss at trial.

As in the court system, drinking and driving is also treated differently than other taboos in society. Certainly in public, we all agree it's wrong. But when a rustic pub is isolated on a winding country back road and the parking lot is filled with cars on a Friday night, does anyone doubt how the patrons arrived? Or how they plan to leave? There are not a lot of subway stops, taxis or bus routes out at the more rural watering holes or even in the city suburbs.

We publicly oppose drinking and driving, but we also are all aware it's going on everywhere -- and with our tacit permission.

Until we resolve the social paradox that is drinking and driving, more than a few citizens will read about Cordle's case and admit, to themselves: "coulda been me." Or worse: "that was me last Saturday."

What happens when or if it is you that is in Cordle's position? Will you still be an anti-DUI crusader? Will you fight the breath and blood tests tooth-and-nail? Or will you take personal responsibility?

YouTube video, perhaps?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danny Cevallos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT