As a new lawyer, I worked in Miami’s county courts of where kids with blaring stereos and cars without mufflers, unruly boaters who sped across manatee habitats, and petty thieves faced time in the county jail mostly for their unrepentantly boorish behavior. The courts teemed with emotion, illogic, and, not infrequently, chaos. The defendants and their families waited alongside long-suffering neighborhoods seeking their day in court against louts whose dogs ran through their gardens, digging, pooping, and terrifying cats.
In addition to the legally recognized pleas of guilty and not guilty, the shrewd judges allowed a third alternative which had absolutely no legal significance but served as a practical and efficient way to keep the heavy docket moving.
Over and over, the court clerk sternly demanded of the defendant, “How do you plead, guilty, not guilty, or guilty with an explanation?” “Guilty with an explanation” was the overwhelmingly popular choice
The defendant was then given a few minutes to offer his excuses, justifications, and rationalizations for doing what he did. But he was still guilty, and treated accordingly.
How often we do this in our personal lives? We behave unreliably, sometimes worse. We break rules, ignore the twinges of conscience that tug at us, then plead “guilty with an explanation,” stammering out our excuses. It feels lame, because, in the end, it is lame. We’re guilty with or without an explanation.
What if we simply admitted it? “I’m sorry. I apologize. I hope you’ll forgive me.” An apology without an excuse. Guilty without an explanation.
It’s a risk that takes courage, but, in the end, a far more truthful and satisfying choice.