Plea Deal or Trial?
If you have been accused of a crime, you have the right to a trial by jury. You also have the right to accept a plea bargain. Approximately 90 percent of defendants in criminal cases choose the latter option, but is that always the wisest decision? Before you can make an intelligent choice, it is vital to become aware of exactly what will be at stake in either case.
There is no question about which path the government wants you to take. If every criminal defendant insisted on going to trial, the volume of cases would clog the courts to the breaking point. Prosecutors understand this, and for this reason, they will almost always try to steer defendants in the other direction.
The prosecution is also aware that in accepting the plea deal, the defendant automatically gives up his or her right to a trial by jury, thereby losing any possibility of being found innocent and clearing his name. On the plus side, however, the defendant will be agreeing to a penalty that is sure to be lighter than anything he could hope to face if a subsequent trial should result in his conviction.
The Impact of Accepting a Plea Deal
The defendant who accepts a plea deal is entering into a contract with the state or federal government’s prosecuting attorney. The plea bargain therefore obligates all parties involved to do certain things and refrain from doing others.
In most cases, each of the two sides will gain one benefit while relinquishing another. For example, in exchange for a defendant’s agreement to testify against an accomplice, the prosecutor might consent to arrange for a lesser sentence or to settle out of court. In every case, however, the defendant gives up his constitutional right to a trial by jury.
Each plea deal will have its own specific set of stipulations. These will vary in accordance with:
- The circumstances of the case.
- The defendant’s prior criminal history.
- Any evidence that the prosecution either already has or is unable to obtain.
Once the court has accepted the plea deal, it is legally binding on all parties concerned. Any violation of its obligations by defendant or prosecution could lead to major consequences.
If the Defendant doesn’t follow through with obligations, he will be facing the maximum sentence for the charge he plead to pursuant to the deal.
On the other hand, when the prosecutor defaults on the deal, one of two things can happen. In some cases, the criminal process will simply start over again from square one, giving the defendant a fresh opportunity to choose between a new plea bargain and a trial by jury. At other times, the court will either order the prosecution to stick to the original terms of the plea deal or elect to carry out those terms itself if the prosecution refuses.
If the prosecution should offer you a plea deal, you are under no obligation to accept it. If you do initially accept and later become disenchanted with its terms before its finalization, you will still have the chance to change your mind and go to trial instead. The plea deal will, however, be binding on both parties after the judge has approved it.
The Potential Consequences of Going to Trial
Although most criminal defendants prefer the certainty of the plea deal to the shot in the dark of a trial by jury, one defendant out of every 10 will choose to go the courtroom route. Innocent people especially might opt to take that chance rather than condemning themselves to the criminal record and penalties that will surely result from having pleaded guilty to a crime that they never committed.
Some of the biggest benefits to going to trial include the time it buys for building a credible defense and the potential possibility of walking free. Throughout the trial, the U.S. Constitution protects all defendants by presuming their innocence. The burden of proving guilt belongs to the prosecutor, and that job becomes more difficult when things like police malfeasance and sloppy procedures force the suppression of evidence that might otherwise have strengthened the case.
On the other hand, any defendant who chooses to go to trial is entrusting his or her fortunes to the judgment of jurors whose decisions could be mercurial and hard to understand. If an overworked public defender serves as the defense, any chance of acquittal may be up in the air as well.
Which Is Better, the Plea Deal or the Trial?
A defendant who agrees to a plea bargain may end up with a lesser sentence, but along with that guilty plea comes a criminal record that will follow for years to come. For someone whose guilt is hard to deny, it could be the better of two choices, but anyone, guilty or innocent, who takes the option of going to trial will also be taking a chance.
For any one defendant, the facts of the case will often point the way to the better decision. However, this choice is not one to be made lightly and never without the advice of a criminal defense attorney. If you should find yourself in this situation, do not hesitate to contact Gregory & Waldo. We will review the salient points of your case and help you reach the decision that makes the most sense for you.