When people call in for criminal consultations, one of the biggest areas we get questions about is their trial. Most people, having seen legal proceedings play out on TV or in movies, assume that a trial in inevitable, that it is the natural conclusion to their case. This is not true however, most criminal cases resolve without a trial, whether that be through a dismissal or a plea agreement. What do I mean by most criminal cases? Somewhere around 95% of all criminal cases. Often times when I tell people this, they are surprised and want to know why that is.
The long and short of it is that trials are risky. A trial is risky for the defense and it is risky for the prosecution. I have seen cases tried on both sides that seemed like a slam-dunk, only to have a jury come back with the opposite verdict. At the end of the day, a jury trial means that you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve complete strangers and letting them decide based on the facts. To be convicted or acquitted of a criminal charge, the jury must come back unanimously, that is every single juror must be in agreement that you are either guilty or not guilty. In rare cases, when a jury has deliberated for a long time and they still can’t reach a conclusion, there will be what is called a “hung jury” and the case may have to be retried. The longest I have ever waited on a verdict was around twenty-two hours, and the judge was not even close to considering allowing the jury to hang.
There are other reasons that trials are not that common. In some situations, there is enough evidence to prove that a person is guilty of the charge they have pending, for example someone who was pulled over for an OWI, who failed sobriety test and who was operating above the legal limit. In situations like these a plea agreement not only allows someone to avoid a trial in which it is likely they will be convicted, but it also allows a defense attorney to argue for the least strict sentence as possible. In many cases, there is a goal that we are working towards in regards to an individual’s sentence, some people want to avoid jail or prison time, others probation, while others main concern may be keeping their firearms rights. Before our office looks to negotiate a plea agreement, we talk with our clients and figure out what is most important to them.
In the end, it is your constitutional right to have a trial and certainly something that is always a possibility. When making the determination on if it is a good idea to take a plea agreement or go to trial, it is always best to consult with an attorney who has experience in the area you are being charged with. After speaking with an attorney you should have a good understanding about different plea agreement options, your chances at trial and what to do to move further in either direction.