Preparing for Trial: Criminal Charges, Defendants and Advice
How to Prepare for a Criminal Trial
Preparing for a criminal trial is time consuming. As soon as you know you are going to trial, it is important that you begin to prepare. Proper preparation requires getting legal counsel, staying out of trouble, and deciding whether to testify. None of these steps will necessarily be easy, but they are absolutely critical to your success at trial.
Getting a Lawyer
Hire an attorney.After you have been charged, you will be arraigned. You can hire an attorney or have one appointed for you. Once you have an attorney, you can discuss whether or not you want to talk with the police. If you do, your attorney should be present.
- If you cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint either a public defender or a private defense attorney. You may have to fill out a form listing your assets and liabilities.After reviewing the form, the judge will determine whether to appoint a public defender.
- To find a competent criminal defense attorney, you can visit your state bar association’s website or call and ask for a referral. To find your local bar association website, visit .
Tell your lawyer everything.An effective criminal defense requires knowing all the facts of your case.Even if some facts do not reflect well on you, your lawyer needs to know everything in order to properly defend you. Things you should always disclose to your lawyer include:
- Your criminal history. Your lawyer will get this information anyway, so you should be upfront about it.
- Any statements you made to the police. If you confessed or admitted to incriminating details, your attorney should know that.
- Your relationship with the victim.
Recommend witnesses your lawyer can talk to.If you have an alibi, or know of witnesses who can help your case, let your attorney know.
- If you are out of jail on bail, you should still leave it to your attorney to gather evidence and contact people. You don’t want to be accused of tampering with a witness.
Ask questions.You should understand what is happening with your case at all times. Your lawyer should also take the time to explain the government’s evidence, what you have been charged with, and what your lawyer’s theory of defense will be. A successful defense requires a well-informed client.
- If you are in jail, you can call or write letters to your lawyer. You should hear back promptly, no longer than a few days. (Remember that it can take a couple days for prisons to process letters.)
- If you do not think your attorney is paying sufficient attention to your case, raise your concerns with him. If you have a public defender, write a letter to your defender’s supervisor, or call.
Pay your attorney promptly.Many criminal defense will require an upfront flat fee before they will agree to become your attorney. If your lawyer is willing to take payments instead a flat fee, then you must make sure that you or your family is timely with their payments. An attorney can withdraw if you fail to pay.Other attorneys will be less likely to take you on as a client if you develop a reputation for refusing to pay in a timely manner.
- Try to set up a payment plan early in the representation. Let your lawyer know how much money you have to commit to your defense.
Participating in Plea Discussions and Pretrial Motions
Discuss plea offers with your lawyer.During the pretrial period, you may enter into plea discussions with the prosecution. A plea bargain or plea agreement is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant for the defendant to plead guilty in return for some concession from the prosecutor, such as a reduced charge or a recommended lighter sentence.
- If you are approached by the prosecutor, you should immediately contact your attorney. Your attorney may be able to negotiate more effectively with the prosecutor then you can.
- Nevertheless, it is always your decision whether to accept a plea bargain.If offered a plea, talk it over with your attorney before deciding.
Enter a plea.Before trial, you will have to enter a plea in open court. You can plead Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest. You will only have a trial if you plead Not Guilty.You should talk with your lawyer about the process.
- If you plead guilty, then you are admitting culpability for the crime.
- If you plead not guilty, then you have denied culpability for the crime.
- If you plead no contest, then you neither admit nor deny culpability.
Attend all hearings.There will probably be several pretrial hearings. For example, if your attorney moves to suppress evidence or wants to use an expert witness, then the court will hold pretrial hearings. There are also many “housekeeping” type hearings, where the judge inquires about the status of the case. If you are in prison, you will be brought to the courthouse for the hearing. Even if you are out on bail, you should attend all hearings.
- Ask your lawyer for copies of any motions that he files. He should give them to you if you ask. Read them and follow up with your lawyer about any questions.
Choose a jury or a bench trial.A defendant has a right to a jury trial if he faces more than 6 months in jail.Defendants also have the right to request a bench trial in a criminal case.
- In a jury trial, the jury is the decider of fact and the judge decides issues of law. In a bench trial, the judge performs both roles.The judge ultimately will decide whether you are guilty or not. You should discuss with your lawyer whether or not you want a jury trial or a bench trial.
- Benefits of a bench trial include the fact that the judge will be better at ignoring inflammatory and prejudicial evidence as well as at fairly applying the legal rules to the facts. Bench trials also tend to happen faster.
- Negatives of a bench trial: the judge knows all of the evidence and also will apply all of the rules. Your strategy may be based on hoping to convince the jury to not apply the law strictly in your case; in this situation, a jury trial may be better. Also, the judge may feel pressure to convict (especially if the judge is elected by the public).
Staying out of Trouble
Follow all court orders.While waiting for your trial to begin, you must make sure that you follow all laws and rules that the court has set for you. For example, if you are required to submit to drug tests, make sure that you do not miss or fail any of these tests.
- Not complying with the rules means that you could be put back in jail pending your trial. Any new charge can only make you look worse in the court’s eyes.
Avoid talking about the case.Unless your lawyer has given you permission, do not talk about the case with family or friends.It will not help you during trial to have people talking about your case. Often, as the story is repeated, the original story is altered.
- Also avoid talking to law enforcement or the press, unless your attorney is present. You have the right to decline to talk with them.
- Reporters can often twist words and take things out of context. It will be better for you if the press does not even have an opportunity to misunderstand you.
Do not tamper with evidence.Tampering or hiding evidence will make you look guilty. Additionally, it may prevent law enforcement from finding the actual perpetrator of the crime.
- If you find any evidence related to your crime, immediately give it to your attorney.
- Also do not contact witnesses for the prosecution. If you do, you could be accused of tampering with witnesses.
Become a model citizen.You must remain calm at all times, no matter how frustrated you feel. If you act out over the internet, then the police or prosecution will be able to use your words against you at trial.
- For example, writing “The Police are the worst most horrible people ever” on Facebook could be used during the trial to show that you hate police.
Deciding Whether to Testify
Understand your rights.You have a Fifth Amendment right to testify or not testify. Although you should certainly discuss whether to testify with your attorney, ultimately the decision rests with you.
- If you gave statements to the police, then those statements are admissible unless your attorney managed to have them suppressed.
Discuss the benefits of testifying with your lawyer.There are many benefits to testifying. For example, jurors often assume that if a person is truly not guilty then that person should be comfortable getting up on the stand and denying it. If you fail to testify, jurors may draw a negative inference: that you are guilty.
- Also, testifying allows you to tell your side of the story. Often, the essential facts of a case are not in dispute. Rather, your motivation or reason for behaving a certain way are. In these situations, testifying may be the only way to get into evidence your state of mind.
- You also have the ability to put into context any out-of-court statements the prosecution introduces. If you answered questions during an interrogation, you can explain them during in-court testimony.
Weigh the negatives of testifying.Testifying in court also carries negatives. Principal among them is that you will be subject to cross-examination. This can be a potential quagmire. The prosecutor may be able to raise prior inconsistent statements as well as any evidence of prior convictions. Also, prosecutors are skilled at making people look bad on the stand. A criminal defendant should not assume he can outfox a prosecutor.
- Some studies also show that when a defendant testifies, jurors expect the defendant to “prove” his innocence, even though a defendant never technically has the burden of proving his innocence.
- Also, jurors may assume that you have a motivation to lie. Accordingly, some of them may discount whatever you have to say.
Practice testifying.If you do decide to testify, you should practice with your lawyer. Your lawyer will ask you questions that you should be prepared to answer. Also, he will give you general tips on how to behave on the stand:
- Be polite and don’t get angry.Even if you feel like the prosecutor is attacking you, you must remain calm.
- Look at the jury when answering a question.Do not be defensive or act as if you have something to hide.
- Keep answers short and to the point.Do not add unnecessary detail or volunteer anything. If the prosecutor wants more information, make him ask for it.
Going to Trial
Dress appropriately.How you look can create a big impact on the jury. The key to dressing appropriately is to look clean and neat but not wear something uncomfortable. If you don’t ever wear a suit, you shouldn’t wear one to trial.
- If you don’t feel comfortable in a suit, then you should wear a button-down shirt and a nice pair of pants.Women can wear a nice blouse and slacks.Always ask your lawyer about what you should wear.
- Be sure to cover up any tattoos that you have with makeup. Jurors are likely to draw negative inferences about a person from the presence of tattoos.
Listen to your attorney.Your attorney should tell you how to act during trial and what to expect. How you act in court plays into your attorney’s overall trial strategy, so make sure to listen to what she tells you.
Remain calm.You may be outraged at what you hear people testify to on the witness stand. It is never easy to hear someone lie. Nevertheless, you must suppress any outbursts and remain calm.
- If you are fidgety or anxious, ask your attorney for a notepad and a pen. You can jot down notes or questions for your lawyer. Or you could just doodle: the jury will not see what you write; however, having something to do may calm you.
Be aware of the jury.During trial, remember that the jury is watching you. Be sure to not act in a way that might cause a juror to dislike you. You should never roll your eyes or even laugh. Act appropriately considering the gravity of the situation.
- Do not speak to anyone rudely, and show respect for the legal process by listening attentively to witnesses and not talking out of turn. Always say “please” and “thank you.”
- Be sure to make eye contact and avoid looking embarrassed or intimidating.
Address the court respectfully.If you need to address the court, be sure to say, “Your Honor.”You should speak slowly and clearly, while standing.
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