When you are charged with a crime, you are entitled to the presumption of innocence. That means that you are constitutionally permitted to maintain your innocence and require the prosecution to prove the charges against you beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.
While you do not have to go to trial and may discuss with your criminal defense attorney the possibility of a plea bargain, sometimes it may be in your best interest to go to trial. Namely when the evidence against you is weak or the prosecution is not willing to make you a favorable plea offer.
The decision to go to trial should not be made without great consideration. Understand that if convicted at trial, you face being adjudicated and sentenced up to the maximum penalty for the charge or charges.
However, if the evidence against you is weak, you may likely be found not guilty. If you are found not guilty, you can never be prosecuted for that same crime ever again.
Trials can be stressful for the accused. You must sit and watch while prosecutors tell a jury about the crimes you are accused of committing. You must listen to witnesses say negative and possibly untrue things about you. You must hope that a jury is going to vote in your favor.
The decision to go to trial is your's and your's alone. Even if your attorney is advising you to accept a plea offer, you may reject it and insist on a jury trial.
At a trial, you may testify or not testify. If you testify, the jury will be instructed to consider your testimony the same way it would consider anyone else's. If you have prior felony convictions, the jury may be made aware of them. If you exercise your constitutional right not to testify, then then jury cannot use that silence against you.
You may call witnesses to testify on your behalf. You may submit evidence to the jury. You may put on a defense or not. It's not your burden of proof, it's the State's. Your attorney will put together your trial strategy.
Whether your case should go to trial is a question you must ask your attorney. Your attorney will have reviewed the evidence, possibly taken depositions, and will be in the best position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case. After all, this is why you hired an attorney.
A good attorney can use their trial preparation to leverage the State into a good plea offer. If the attorney got witnesses to make statements in deposition that were inconsistent with previous statements, then the prosecutor may offer a better plea knowing that the veracity of their witness will be questioned at trial.
If the prosecutor is being unreasonable and is offering a plea that is inconsistent with the interests of justice, then maybe a jury trial is the only viable option.
It goes without saying that the decision to take your case to trial is not one that should be made lightly. You must consider all the risks and rewards of a jury trial while at the same time considering the consequences of a guilty plea. If the prosecutor is offering a plea that does not include jail or prison time, such as probation, then you must consider the fact that a guilty verdict may result in a jail or prison sentence from the judge.
At the same time, if the prosecutor is seeking a felony adjudication, or conviction, and you have never been previously convicted of a felony, accepting the plea will make you a convicted felon. You will carry this stigma around for likely the rest of your life.
These are all things you must take into account before choosing to go forward to trial.
To me, sweetest words in the English language are, "We the jury find the Defendant, not guilty." If you decide to take your case to trial, I hope that you get to hear them.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving Miami-Dade and Broward. Call today to discuss your case.