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Why all four plea deals in the Georgia election case have included apologies

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Apologies often work in movies and television shows, but what about in court? That depends. Jenna Ellis pleaded guilty Tuesday to illegally conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. Part of her plea deal included a written apology. She stood before the court and said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNA ELLIS: (Reading) If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges. I look back on this whole experience with deep remorse. For those failures of mine, your Honor, I have taken responsibility already before the Colorado bar, who censured me, and I now take responsibility before this court and apologize to the people of Georgia. Thank you.

SIMON: All four plea deals so far in the Georgia election case have included apologies to the people of Georgia. Professor Kay Levine is associate dean for research at Emory University School of Law and has some insights. Thank you for being with us.

KAY LEVINE: Of course. Happy to help.

SIMON: How unusual is it to require someone with a guilty plea to also write an apology?

LEVINE: So it's much more common to see apologies from defendants as part of sentencing hearings when they've been charged with and convicted of crimes against individual people. This kind of apology letter - to the citizens of the state of Georgia - I've never seen or heard from before. That doesn't mean it hasn't happened. It just is not something that we normally hear about.

SIMON: What does somebody like Jenna Ellis or Sidney Powell stand to get out of making a formal apology in a case like this?

LEVINE: Well, first of all, they are being required to make this formal apology as part of the plea agreement reached by the prosecution. So the first thing they stand to get is a check mark in terms of compliance...

SIMON: Yeah. That's an incentive. Yeah.

LEVINE: ...With their obligations under the plea deal. The second thing is they are locking themselves in in some way to a statement about their own responsibility for the behavior that led to these charges against them and that the statements that are part of these apology letters and the statement that Jenna Ellis made in court may well be used to lock them into testimony in any future trial against any of the other co-defendants.

SIMON: So if they provide testimony against other co-conspirators, it becomes, in theory, harder for a defense attorney to suggest that they haven't accepted responsibility for their own participation.

LEVINE: Yes, that's exactly right.

SIMON: Let me try and pose the question that I think occurs to a lot of people - does making an apology conceivably make the person who offers the apology and has accepted a plea deal and might wind up paying, you know, a fine - does it make them a more credible witness against other people involved in the case? And obviously, the biggest name involved is Donald Trump.

LEVINE: Possibly. I think the apology shows that they have reckoned with their own behavior. You know, then again, I think many of us, just in our common experience with other human beings, might question the value of an apology that's been sought from another person as opposed to an apology that is coming purely from a place of self-motivation by the one giving the apology.

SIMON: And they do have the powerful incentive of reaching a plea deal agreement with the prosecutor, too.

LEVINE: Absolutely. This is something that defense attorneys regularly seize upon as a basis on which to challenge the credibility of a witness - is to say, you're only testifying now so that you can take advantage of this good deal. It's something for - that the jurors will have to consider. I think the government, at this point - Fani Willis' office is hoping that that technique works for one witness, maybe two witnesses. But when you have multiple witnesses coming forward, speaking about what happened behind closed doors, sharing emails, text messages, physical documents that previously nobody had known about - that it makes it less likely that any one of those people is saying what they're saying only to get a good deal.

SIMON: Kay Levine is associate dean for research at Emory University School of Law. Professor, sorry for taking your time - ha ha - and thanks very much.

LEVINE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.