You’ve found a lawyer you like. He or she seems incredibly intelligent and knows the law backwards and forwards. Now you need to decide one thing: How can I use this person’s skills to defend myself against a criminal charge?
Understanding both your role as the client and the attorney’s role as your attorney is essential to presenting the best defense to a criminal charge.
Your attorney’s job: to teach, negotiate, and litigate.
Those unfamiliar with lawyers may be surprised to learn that most of lawyers’ time is spent teaching with their clients. The hallmark of a good lawyer is the ability to explain even complex legal arguments in a way that you understand. Anyone facing a criminal charge must understand what the elements of a crime are and what evidence the prosecution has to support those elements.
Your lawyer needs to be a good negotiator. It is a common practice for prosecutors to recommend a less serious charge or a favorable sentence to the defendant in cases where the evidence is weak. In some cases, the prosecutor may offer a reduced charge to someone with no criminal background. Negotiation is not a one-time, winner takes all, event; Rather it is a continuous activity till the matter is resolved – that means till the trial and sometimes even in the middle of the trial.
Your lawyer should be a good litigator. In the context of jury trial, the need for a good litigator is obvious. He or she will need similar skills before trial, as many criminal cases involve legal questions that a judge has to answer. For example, would a particular statement be allowed in evidence? The process of seeking an answer from the judge is called a motion hearing. The outcome of the motion hearing may be important to your case. Some motions, for example a probable cause motion, may determine whether your case is dismissed before it reaches trial.
You are the one who has to live with the consequences of your decisions, so your job is to understand what your choices are and the effects of those choices.
To understand your options, you need to ask questions. Never feel shy about asking questions, it is your attorney’s job to make sure you understand everything. A good lawyer will be able to answer most of your questions beforehand; Perhaps when they initially explain your options to you. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information during your first or second meeting, so don’t be afraid to write down your questions ahead of time.
Generally, there are four options in any criminal case: First, plead guilty to something. Second, to pursue some form of alternative resolution. Third, whether to file a motion. Fourth, whether to go to trial.
Being guilty can mean many things. You can plead guilty to the charge. The only real issue is whether or not you and the prosecutor can agree on a sentence. If the prosecutor has offered a lesser offense, you can plead guilty to an amended charge. This new offense may or may not be something you are actually guilty of – but since the consequences are less severe than the original offense charged, it may be agreeable to both parties. You can plead guilty using an “Alford” plea. This is where you state up front that you do not believe you are guilty but that you are going to plead guilty in order to take advantage of the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation. In an Alford plea, you must also agree that there is a substantial likelihood that a judge or jury will find you guilty if the case goes to trial.
In less serious criminal cases, there may be options to either plead guilty or go to trial. For example, in some misdemeanors, the law allows for “compromise of guilt” where the defendant and the victim agree to settle the matter among themselves. You can often see this in third degree theft cases such as shoplifting. The shopkeeper agrees to pay compensation to the shop owner and the shop owner agrees that the criminal case may be dropped. There are other examples such as pre-trial diversion agreements. In a PTDA, the defendant agrees to do (or not do) certain things and if he complies, the case is dismissed. Unfortunately, alternative solutions are not available in every case.
In many criminal cases, there are legal questions that a judge has to answer. The most common questions involve whether prosecutors can use a piece of evidence against a defendant. Examples may include: Descriptions, test results, or other physical items.
Either party can ask a judge to rule on whether something will be allowed in evidence. This is usually done in motion hearing. As a defendant, your job is to understand what is at stake during the motion hearing and whether or not there is any risk to the hearing. The outcome of a motion hearing can range from no effect on your case to a dismissal of the charges against you.
The final arbiter of justice is the jury trial. You will have to rely on your attorney to decide whether going through a trial is worth it in your case. The outcome of a test is simple: you either win or you lose. If you win, the case is over and your court is over. If you lose, the judge gives you slightly more jail time and a slightly higher fine than if you had simply pleaded guilty. Whether a judge will do so in a particular case depends on how things go during the hearing. If you had good arguments but the jury found you guilty anyway, a judge may take this into account when sentencing. I’ve certainly had cases where we went to trial and lost, but my client ended up with a better sentence than what he would have received.
Speaking with an experienced, aggressive attorney can relieve an incredible amount of stress. It can also create a problem: the temptation to let a “professional” handle your case. Don’t fall into this trap. No matter how smart or educated your lawyer is, if he doesn’t know what it is, he won’t be able to get you the solution you want. Your attorney will trust you with your needs and wants just as much as you would trust your attorney for good advice.
To get the most out of your criminal defense attorney, get involved in your own defense. Ask questions, learn about your fees, and prepare yourself to make a final decision about how you want your case to be resolved.
Copyright (c) 2007 Cahoon Law Offices. All rights reserved.