Any person accused of a crime has a Sixth Amendment right to trial. Often in federal drug cases such as possession with intent to distribute cocaine or conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, the potential sentence if convicted varies greatly.
Defendants in federal cases are often faced with a very difficult decision of exercising their right to trial and potentially facing a much more severe sentence or pleading guilty in hopes of reducing their sentence.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has referred to the dilemma persons charged with federal crimes face as the federal trial penalty. Post-trial sentences are often much more severe for those who take their case to trial and lose than those who enter into a plea agreement. For example, a defendant in a relatively minor felony drug conspiracy case may be facing five to 40 years as per the initial charges under the indictment. However, based on information from cooperating witnesses and drug lab tests, the prosecutor may be able to demonstrate that the quantity of drugs is large enough for the next higher statutory sentence of 10 years to life. If the defendant in that case has two prior felony drug convictions, that defendant could face a mandatory life sentence if the defendant chooses to take the case to trial and loses.
The defendant in this scenario could enter a plea to the current charge and face a term of five to 40 years or could fight the case at trial and potentially face a mandatory life sentence.
Some attorneys feel that a defendant is not punished for taking his case to trial and losing, but rather is rewarded for accepting responsibility for criminal conduct. Other attorneys believe that the prosecutor’s control over the charging function often leads defendants to plead guilty regardless of innocence.
Regardless of differing opinions about the trial penalty, a defendant in a criminal case who is considering having a jury trial, must understand the strength of his defense and the possible consequences of going to trial and work closely with his attorney to make the best possible decision as to how to best proceed. Often winning at a jury trial is the best possible resolution while losing a jury trial could get them a worse possible result.