Step 10: Trial or Plea

The trial of a criminal case is where, as the saying goes, the rubber meets the road. It is the culmination of all the hard work, research and investigation the criminal defense lawyer has done – or should have done – on the case. Criminal cases are usually tried before a jury (6 persons for misdemeanors or 12 persons for felonies) but they can be presented in front of a judge. Such a trial is called a bench trial. It is usually a better idea to have a defendant’s fate in the hands of many rather than one, but sometimes circumstances dictate that a bench trial is a better option. A skilled and experienced trial lawyer can properly advise the client as to which is appropriate in the case.

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BURDEN OF PROOF IN CRIMINAL CASE

The State has the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, they get to go first in speaking to the jury and presenting evidence. A trial by jury typically proceeds in this fashion: jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence by the State (with cross examination of all witnesses by defense), the State rests, the defense puts up evidence if necessary, the defense rests, then closing arguments by both sides followed by jury deliberation and verdict. Trials are complicated and require a thorough working knowledge of the rules of evidence and criminal procedure. Having a skilled and experienced trial lawyer representing you is critical.

 PLEA OF GUILTY: NEGOTIATED VERSUS NON-NEGOTIATED PLEAS

If the State’s evidence is overwhelming or the risks of trial are just too great, sometimes the best option is to enter a plea of guilty to the charge to avoid the potential of a harsher sentence upon conviction. The State usually makes a plea offer to defense counsel who will then attempt to negotiate a lower or better sentence than the State seeks. Sometimes the State and defense counsel can agree on all the terms of the sentence and the defendant will enter what’s called a ‘negotiated plea.’ The judge still has the right to not follow the negotiated plea but if that happens the defendant can withdraw the plea before sentencing. If the defense is seeking something different from the State and they cannot agree then the defendant can enter a non-negotiated plea and leave the sentencing in the hands of the judge with each side making a pitch for what they want. This can be a very effective strategy in front of some judges and a catastrophically bad idea in front of others. It’s important to choose a lawyer who is familiar with the judges in the jurisdiction where you face charges for that very reason.

 

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, please give me a call today for a free and confidential discussion about the matter. My office number is 404-474-2531.

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