Less than 8% percent of criminal cases go to a jury trial. Many argue that the percentage of individuals who actually make it to a jury is less than five percent. But does it really matter what the number is when we are talking about such low percentages? Why are defendants not exercising their Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial? The United States judicial system still operates under the ideal that the accused are innocent until proven guilty; so why are defendants accused of crimes relinquishing their given right? While it’s possible that the police are doing a wonderful job of investigating crimes and that everyone arrested is actually guilty of the crime charged, I don’t buy it and neither do you.
So why is this phenomenon repeatedly occurring? I think there are several likely reasons causing criminal defendants to forfeit their rights to a jury trial, but today I’m going to discuss two.
1. Police say what they need to say in order to get the conviction.
Do police officers lie? Yes. Why? I don’t know. But if I had to guess, I would say that it probably has to do with their frustration with the system. Police officers have to deal with individuals at their worst every day and are affected by the negativity. They see these perpetrators go to court, take a deal, and get slapped on the wrist with probation or a fine. Is that justice for the victims? Is that justice for the officers who put their lives on the line for the benefit of society? If you attempt to stand in an officer’s shoes, it is not difficult to see how an officer can feel that the high risks they assume are not fairly balanced against the punishments, or lack thereof, that defendants often receive. Through an officer’s eyes, defendants commit serious crimes and usually wind up pleading only to probation, only to be out on the street again ultimately putting the officer at risk once more. Combine that knowledge with normal daily stresses of the job, and you have an officer who takes justice into his/her own hands, altering testimony, saying what needs to be said in a police report so that the case never goes to trial, the defendant pleads guilty, the State gets the conviction, and the defendant goes to prison.
The career criminal will eventually commit enough criminal acts that he/she will score mandatory prison – finally paying their debt to society. … Right? Maybe. But the problem with this type of “justice” lies with the first time offender. The suspect who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The guy who has the wrong friend. That guy, maybe you, who gets charged with a crime by an officer who embellishes the truth to get a conviction. Suddenly your life is ruined by the possibility of prison or the criminal record you will receive by a plea bargain to a probationary period. The officer has made the facts look unbeatable, the court system scares you, and so you forfeit your right to a trial by taking a plea. You see no other way out, and now your life is forever changed. That is one reason I believe defendants are throwing away their right to trial, their day in court, their opportunity to be heard, and taking the safe route: because officers have made defending a criminal case seem impossible to defendants.
Why else do defendants forfeit their right to a jury trial?
2. Inexperienced, greedy, lazy Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Walking into the court room every day of the week allows me to watch and critique other criminal lawyers. Who am I to critique others? I’m nobody famous. But I am a guy who took an oath to do my best for my client and I’m the guy writing this blog, so I will call it as I see it. The numbers may not be as low as the numbers of defendants avoiding jury trials, but when looking around the court room it appears that maybe 10% percent of the criminal defense bar actually cares about the system. Sure, all attorneys sit around discussing war stories, convincing themselves and others that they care. But the truth is that they sleep like babies when their clients plea to a crime and/or go to prison… especially when they have been paid their entire legal fee. How is it that 90% percent of criminal defense attorneys drive exotic cars, have $500-$1000 shoes, have multiple houses, but plea bargain nearly 100% percent of their cases without ever taking a deposition? How can they recommend to their clients that they plead guilty or no contest on cases that can be won by doing actual work; by taking depositions, by ordering 911 and dispatch tapes, by going to the scene of the alleged crime, and by talking to their client and witnesses? How?
It’s easy. Defendants have no idea that these lawyers plea bargain every case instead of actually fighting the fight. Criminal defense lawyers take advantage of the fact that the Florida Bar does not allow them to advertise their wins; if no one is actually counting, then attorneys can easily embellish to their clients how great they are prior to getting paid. Once they have their client’s money, the future becomes bleak for the client. Instead of taking depositions, looking for mistakes and constitutional rights violations, and doing actual work to represent the client to the best of their ability, the attorneys offer their professional advice that a plea is inevitable and the best choice, as contrasted against the possibility of prison. There is rarely a mention of the client being innocent until proven guilty. Instead of fighting the case and making the State prove guilt beyond and to the exclusion of all reasonable doubt, these attorneys are quick advise their clients to admit guilt (sometimes when they aren’t even guilty) and sustain convictions that will, in many cases, forever change the clients’ lives. All for the sake of getting paid and quickly getting rid of cases. Defendants take the plea because they trust their lawyer’s advice; they believe that the lawyer is looking out for their best interest. Unfortunately it seems that in actuality, many defense attorneys are looking out only for Number One.
It is sad to see that so many attorneys lack the enthusiasm necessary to do their job properly, even when paid. Did anyone get the memo that pleading Guilty or No Contest should be avoided, if possible, because of its actual effects on the client’s life? Not only can a plea eliminate future possibilities for the defendant, such as the ability to gain employment, rent an apartment, gain admission to a university, but a plea also carries with it numerous negative aspects, such as a criminal record, punishment, and possible future harassment or harsher treatment by police. When positive opportunities cease to exist and are replaced by negative consequences in a person’s life, the individual deteriorates and so does our society.
Whether the client actually committed the crime is irrelevant in this discussion. A defense attorney is supposed to fight for the defendant’s rights, as all of their billboards and advertisements so ironically say.
If you’re a criminal defense attorney and you disagree, re-examine yourself and think about the last case you plead without taking a deposition. Talk is cheap. Take a deposition and work on the case. Don’t plead every case. Force the State to prove your client guilty. When police make mistakes, when prosecutors make mistakes, those mistakes should be revealed and the defendant should walk away. Once enough people walk, the police and State will have to work harder to do their jobs right; they will be held to a higher standard and will be educated on the law. Don’t devalue our society by being lazy and taking the easy plea – take some pride by looking in the mirror at who you really are, not by what you hope is portrayed to people as you disguise yourself as successful with your fancy suits and expensive shoes. Try earning them before wearing them; it makes you feel a lot taller.
If you’re a police officer and you disagree, think about the last report you wrote, or the last time you testified. Was everything negative, or did you actually talk about the weaknesses of the arrest, or what the defendant did well during their roadside sobriety exercises?
If you’re a member of the general public, then I say: you’re welcome. Because it is better that you are informed.
Copyright (c) 2010, Law Office of Roger P. Foley
The Law Offices of Roger P. Foley,P.A.