“How many cases have you taken to ‘jury trial’ in the past five years?”
It is a simple question that a lot of lawyers may not be happy to answer. Some may avoid it, some may question you as to why that is important, and some may make some excuse for why they don’t actively take cases to trial.
However, don’t be fooled, this question is an excellent starting barometer in determining whether the lawyer you are interviewing/hiring is actually worth the money you are paying them. Of course, there will be lawyers who take cases to trial but don’t know what they are doing. However, over a five-year period, if they have had at least a couple trials per year, they should at least pass the test of this initial threshold question.
Most people are surprised to learn that the majority of lawyers go years without taking a case to jury trial; that statistic in itself is troubling. In a five-year period, a lawyer who is a competent and zealous advocate for his/her clients is going to run into a few trials; there is no way around it. Any criminal defense lawyer who knows what he or she is doing will tell you that. Here is why:
Plea Bargains Aren’t Always a Bargain
When you are charged with a crime, the state has made an initial determination that they wish to prosecute you. From there, you and your lawyer are entitled to “due process,” meaning that your case gets a fair shake through the court system. Your lawyer will obtain the police reports and all other evidence associated with your case.
Depending on the severity of the charge, the prior criminal history of the defendant, the available range of punishments for the charge, the strength of the case, and last but not least, the general attitude of the Prosecutor’s Office in the county where the defendant is charged, the prosecuting attorney may extend an offer of a plea bargain. A plea bargain is a prearranged punishment in exchange for your plea of guilty to the charge (or oftentimes to an amended lesser charge). However, a plea bargain is not always rainbows and butterflies; not only is it a plea of guilty to a crime, it also can include prison time and other court sanctions, not to mention the stigma attached to admitting guilt in that crime.
Any lawyer who doesn’t go to trial at least a few times per year, by default, ALWAYS PLEADS HIS CLIENTS GUILTY. It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where a criminal defense lawyer wouldn’t come across a single innocent person or a single person who wanted to challenge the charge against them. Yet, this is the reality that pervades the criminal defense industry.
A Trial Has Its Benefits
Additionally, there can be GREAT value in going to trial, like winning. For example, say the defendant is charged with murder in the first degree and using a deadly weapon. The defense is that although the defendant did in fact shoot the victim, it was in self-defense. The prosecutor has already made the determination that they are proceeding that it was not self-defense, or else the defendant wouldn’t be on trial. If the defendant entered into a plea bargain, they would be pleading guilty to something, and at the very least they would be on probation, but most likely they would receive a conviction and a prison sentence.
In that scenario, had they gone to trial and explained to the jury that it was self-defense, they could have been acquitted of the charge outright and free to go about their life as usual.
Another value in having a lawyer that takes cases to jury trial can be explained with this example: A defendant is charged with a medium-severity offense. The case against the defendant is “OK,” but it is going to be hard for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that the defendant is guilty.
Maybe there isn’t a good identification of the suspect, or maybe the evidence as to one of the elements of the crime is weak. In many scenarios, your lawyer can calculate what may happen if you go to trial and lose. If the judge isn’t likely to sentence you to anything worse than what the prosecutor’s plea bargain offer was before trial, then there is value in taking a shot at being acquitted at trial.
Hiring a Fighter Might Get You a Better Deal
Furthermore, there may also be value in going to trial because the prosecutor may be more inclined to make a better offer or to dismiss the case altogether rather than go to trial and lose. There is no risk of the prosecutor losing at trial if he or she is facing a lawyer who always just pleads clients guilty. Therefore, the defendant is ill served by that lawyer’s reputation for avoiding jury trials.
Ultimately, even the top lawyers who take lots of cases to trial still end up pleading out most of their cases. However, those plea bargains are going to be routinely better if prosecutors know that the defense attorney is capable of beating them, and in fact has beaten them in the past at trial. Regardless, hiring your attorney is an important decision, and you shouldn’t be hiring a lawyer who can’t or won’t try your case if it comes to that.