Should I Go to Trial in My Criminal Case?
In every criminal case, one of the most important decisions that your criminal defense lawyer will help you to make is whether you should go to trial or accept a plea offer.
In many cases, the answer is obvious. In other cases, it can be a difficult decision. You don’t want to go to trial and risk a conviction that may have serious consequences – whether that means a criminal record, loss of your driver’s license, or a prison sentence.
On the other hand, there may be plenty of reasons you should go to trial, not least of which is that you are not guilty.
When should you go to trial and when should you ask your attorney to negotiate a plea for you? The answer is different for every case, in different circumstances, and for different people. You may have a different answer than someone else in the same exact same circumstances, and your attorney may have a different recommendation than ten other attorneys would have given.
Although your attorney should discuss with you the evidence in your case, your odds of winning at trial, the chance that the prosecutor will take the case to trial, the details of any plea offer, and the potential consequences if you lose at trial, you make the decision as to whether you will take your case to trial.
Below, I’ll discuss some of the considerations that attorneys make when advising their clients as to whether they should accept a guilty plea or take their case to trial, but, if you are charged with a crime, you must make that decision based on the facts of your case after consulting with your attorney.
Should I Go to Trial? Making an Informed Decision
Here’s the problem for many clients who are struggling with the decision of going to trial: your attorney cannot tell you whether you will win or lose. The only thing that is certain about the criminal courts is that there is no certainty.
Your attorney can only tell you what your options are, what the probable outcome is in a plea or at trial, and the possible consequences of either decision.
What are Your Options?
I choose dismissal…
I get it. I agree. Except, in most cases, we cannot force the prosecutor to dismiss your case. In most cases, your options will consist of 1) accepting a plea offer with a recommendation, or 2) going to trial.
Depending on the facts and circumstances of your case, you may have additional options – pretrial diversion for some, a conditional discharge, Drug Court, pleading guilty without recommendation, testifying against a codefendant in exchange for leniency, or some other alternative.
Would you turn down pretrial diversion that would result in a dismissal and expungement and demand a trial instead? It may not sound like a good idea, but I have had clients make that decision – what is important is that you are making an informed decision based on all the facts in your case and the odds of either winning your case at trial or your case getting dismissed before trial begins…
What is the Likely Outcome at Trial? In a Plea?
Before deciding to accept a guilty plea offer or to demand a trial in your case, you should consider the likely outcome if you were to ask for a jury to decide your case or if you were to accept a plea offer.
Understanding that evidence can change as trial gets closer, what evidence does the state have that they will use against you? Is it good evidence, or is it information that your attorney can debunk at trial? Understanding that you don’t have to prove anything at trial, what evidence do you have that could prove your innocence?
What witnesses does the state have, are they credible, and will your attorney be able to effectively impeach them at trial? What witnesses do you have and are they credible? If you were to testify, would you make a credible witness that the jurors would want to help?
If you have a plea offer, is it something that you could live with? Is it a negotiated plea where the judge cannot change the potential sentence? Is it a plea without recommendation? If so, do you have a wealth of mitigation and character witnesses who will speak for you at the sentencing hearing?
Why Should You Go to Trial?
If you are innocent, my advice to my clients will almost always be, “go to trial.” Innocent people don’t plead guilty.
Of course, innocent people do plead guilty every day because they are terrified of the negative consequences of losing a trial, and an “Alford plea” or “no-contest plea” may be an option if that is in your best interest.
Nothing to Lose
Another situation where you may insist on a jury trial is when the plea offer is no better than the potential outcome at trial – if the state is offering you a one-year prison sentence for PWID/ possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and you are confident that a jury will convict you of simple possession marijuana with a 30-day maximum sentence, that may be a good reason to go to trial.
If you are 50 years old and the prosecutor is offering 30 years no-parole on a murder charge, you may decide you have nothing to lose – at 50 years old, isn’t a 30-year sentence a life sentence? What’s the worst that could happen if you are convicted? A life sentence… either way, you have nothing to lose.
Or, what if you are charged with a relatively minor offense, you are confident you will not go to prison if you are convicted at trial, and you cannot afford to have a conviction on your record? After discussing it with your attorney, you may want to demand a trial and fight it out until the bitter (or sweet) end.
If the state cannot prove the case against you, that’s a reason to go to trial (although you should rely on your attorney’s advice as to whether the state has sufficient evidence to convict you).
Maybe the state finds more evidence before your trial, maybe you go to trial and win, or maybe the prosecutor dismisses your case before it is called for trial. Regardless, if the prosecutor is offering you a guilty plea when you and your attorney are confident that they cannot get a conviction…
Or, what if you were a “bit player” in a drug sweep, but you were not the primary target? Will they dismiss your case once they have a conviction against their main target? What if your co-defendant has testified or given you an affidavit that says the drugs were his and you didn’t know about them?
These are questions your attorney may be able to answer for you, and, depending on the facts of your case, may influence your decision.
Why Should You Plead Guilty?
The short answer is: when your attorney advises you to, after consultation and reviewing the evidence and your options…
If the state has a solid case against you, there is a good chance they will call your case for trial, you are looking at the likelihood of prison if you lose at trial, and they are offering you a substantial benefit – probation or a substantially reduced sentence, it may be in your best interest to accept the plea offer…
Who Makes the Decision, the Attorney or the Client?
What if your attorney says to plead guilty, but you disagree? You see the evidence differently, or you just refuse to plead guilty, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead?
The client always makes the decision as to whether to accept a plea offer or go to trial with a jury. You should listen to your attorney’s advice and consider that your attorney may have years of experience studying the law, defending clients, negotiating pleas, and trying cases to a jury, but you make the decision.
Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC
Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts.
If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you are under investigation in the Charleston, Georgetown, or Myrtle Beach areas of SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to schedule a free consultation.