14 December 2012

Trial by Jury

Court service days are those days in court where defendants appear for matters that take little time such as arraignments, pretrial conferences, uncontested motions, etc. These terms are not self-explanatory, but attorneys practicing criminal law will understand the process. The courtrooms are full of defendants and attorneys waiting to plead guilty, plead not guilty, negotiate a reasonable disposition of the case, or to take care of other matters that may present themselves none of which take more than a few minutes. What becomes obvious with only a few minutes observation is that the vast majority of defendants plead guilty to something--either the original charge or some lesser included offense. This observation is reinforced when discussing a new charge with a new client and asking about his previous criminal history and if ever he has gone to trial on anything. The answer, with very few exceptions, is the person has never gone to trial but always plead guilty to the original charge or some lesser included offense. Most often the reason is to be released from jail since bond could not be made. Often times it is simply to get it over with. Criminal charges are disruptive, anxiety producing, and expensive even for those with unlimited leisure. The criminal justice system is a factory production. It produces compliance and revenue; the perfect combination. What is apparent, however, is that this system operates only because of the cooperation of defense attorneys and defendants. We as a group are complicit in this organized assault on our clients. If, on one day, on one court service day, each and every defendant said "I'm not pleading, I want a trial", the criminal justice system would implode. No court could withstand the onslaught of trials; they simply could not be scheduled. Prosecutors would be incapable of rational thought wandering about the halls asking themselves what to do. Court attendants and clerks would be staring about in wonderment. Law enforcement would be spending their vacations and off duty times waiting endless hours at the courthouse to testify. It is amazing just to think about. The chances that this vision would ever become reality borders on zero. There is no economic impetus for a trial. Defense attorneys lose money going to trial. Defendants incur costs they cannot afford. Family, friends, and associates called to testify grumble over the imposition. It is all very disadvantageous. From observing the run-of-the-mill defense attorneys there is little interest in trying any case unless the defendant actually insists on a trial. In a county such as Jasper, where you may have one jury trial a quarter but hundreds of criminal charges, something is askew.