In criminal cases, while many of the decisions belong to the lawyer, several decisions belong to the client. The client gets to decide the following:
- Whether to plead guilty or not guilty.
- Accept a plea bargain.
- Waive jury trial.
- Testify at trial.
These are important rights and while the attorney will advise the client about these rights, the rights ultimately belong to the client. However, in order for the client to make the best possible decision regarding these rights, it is imperative that the client communicate honestly with his attorney about his goals and his defense.
The attorney gets to decide the theme and theory of the case, which witnesses to call, whether to call witnesses at all, which evidence to offer, whether to file pre-trial motions and which jurors to select. The client should be involved in all of these phases.
Often problems arise when either the client decides not to be involved in the case or tries to make decisions that are to be made by the attorney.
In many criminal cases, the defendant has knowledge that neither prosecutors nor police have about the location of the alleged crime, witnesses, and the actions which constitute the alleged crime. It is paramount that the attorney have this information so that he may determine whether it may be used to the client’s advantage. If a client withholds information from his attorney or is dishonest, it will likely affect the attorney’s ability to present the best possible defense for the client.
There are also times when either a client or the client’s relative will become too involved in the case. The attorney decides whether to cross examine witnesses and what questions to ask witnesses. The attorney also determines what objections he will make and which evidence he will present or try to prevent from coming into trial. The criminal defense attorney knows that the burden stays on the government to prove the case and the last thing a criminal defense attorney wants to do is to prove the government’s case. Sometimes people charged with crimes or their family members have a misconception about the criminal justice system or due to lack of formal education, not understand the function of a criminal defense attorney nor a criminal trial. In these instances, the attorney is often spending quite a bit of time and energy educating the client and his family about why he is making the decision or why the family suggestion is not in the best interest of the client.
Often clients and people associated with the client provide helpful information. However there must be a balance between providing information and not interfering with the criminal defense attorney’s decision. A client should provide an attorney with as much information about his case as possible. The client should know the evidence against him and review it so he can determine whether there is additional evidence or are investigations that could help his case. However, the attorney is the expert and decisions regarding strategy and tactics are left to the attorney and not the client.
Sometimes there is friction between the client and his attorney because the client believes that the client should be making decisions about the strategy and the tactics. In an optimal attorney/client relationship, the boundaries are understood and maintained. However, criminal trials are very emotional experiences for clients. Anyone charged with a crime knows that his or her life as he or she knows it is in jeopardy. Felony convictions carry life-long disabilities. Furthermore, criminal convictions will often result in prison times or other punishments. Criminal defense attorneys are aware that their clients have suffered punishment from being charged long before trial or sentencing. People charged with crimes often lose their jobs, have to post a large amount of bail, and suffer humiliation and embarrassment. This can sometimes affect the client’s ability to trust the attorney. This is understandable as often individuals who are charged with a crime for the first time lose all faith in the justice system. They do not understand why an investigator or prosecutor chooses them when they feel they have done nothing wrong. This is completely opposite of what they have been taught about “Officer Friendly” in elementary school.
Regardless of a client’s emotional state it is the attorney’s job to make the strategical and tactical decisions. Often one of the more difficult decisions that belong to the client is whether to testify at trial.
Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a defendant is not required to testify at trial. Furthermore the jury cannot hold the fact that a defendant did not testify at trial when making a decision about innocence or guilt against him. Regardless of whether the client testifies, the government bears the burden of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt and that burden never shifts. However, often clients want to tell their side of the story. In determining whether to testify, the client should insure that his attorney knows everything that the client wants to say and that they have a discussion about the rules of evidence so that the client understands that he cannot just walk up to the stand and tell his story, but that he will be asked questions and be cross-examined by the prosecution.
The bottom line is there are no easy decisions in a criminal defense trial. Some belong to the attorney, some belong to the client. In the end, it is imperative they work together to get the optimal result, which means in most cases a non-guilty verdict.
If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, please contact the Berry Law Firm.