Every profession has its stereotypes, which often manifest themselves in annoying questions from presumably well-intentioned party guests. Ph.D. students in the humanities get tired of being asked, “So, what are you going to do with that degree?” Physicians cringe when party guests ask them, “What do you make of these symptoms?” before rolling up their sleeves to show an odd-looking skin lesion or launching into a long description of their digestive issues. For Greenville criminal defense attorneys, the question that puts a damper on the fun of neighborhood barbecues is, “Why would you want to defend criminals?” This question shows a fundamental lack of understanding about what criminal defense lawyers do.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty in Criminal Defense Cases
In the United States, defendants in criminal cases are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The United States legal tradition bases this doctrine on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which protect the right to due process, and the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a fair trial. The prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant actually committed the illegal acts of which he or she has been accused. If the prosecution cannot do this, the jury will declare the defendant innocent, and the defendant cannot be punished for the crime.
What is Reasonable Doubt?
Yes, Reasonable Doubt is the name of the album that made Jay-Z a household name. The album took its name from a legal term referring to the most important duty of a criminal defense attorney. In criminal cases, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. The defense does not have to prove beyond a doubt that the defendant is innocent. It must only prove that there is sufficient reason to doubt that the defendant committed the crime with which he or she was charged. In other words, if the jury is truly not sure whether the defendant committed the crime, then the defense has successfully established reasonable doubt, and the defendant will be found innocent.
The Rights of Defendants in Criminal Defense Cases
Defendants in criminal cases have certain rights, granted by the United States Constitution.
- Due process – According to the Fifth Amendment, the government cannot inflict punishments (including but not limited to fines and imprisonment) for a particular crime on defendants unless the defendant has been found guilty of that crime. This is called the right to due process.
- Fair trial – The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to a trial by jury. The trial is to be public, and unnecessary delays in holding the trial are to be avoided. The defendant has the right to be notified of the charges well in advance of the trial and to bring witnesses to support the case for his or her innocence.
- No cruel and unusual punishment – The Seventh Amendment prohibits punishments in excess of what the crime warrants. It also prohibits unfairly expensive amounts for fines and bail.
Additionally, the Miranda warning is an explanation of the rights defendants have during the period before their trial. Police officers must notify suspects of their rights at the time of the arrest. In brief, they must notify the defendant of his or her right to remain silent and to refuse to answer questions at any point during interrogations. The defendant has the right to be represented by an attorney, whether or not he or she can afford to pay for such legal representation.
The defendant may request to have the attorney present during questioning. The purpose of the Miranda warning is to make sure defendants can exercise the right not to incriminate themselves. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that defendants must not be coerced into saying things that would prove them guilty of committing a crime.You have probably seen courtroom dramas where characters “plead the Fifth” while on the witness stand. In practice, the protection against self-incrimination more often manifests itself by defendants not saying anything at all. Defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and they cannot be coerced making a statement against himself.
During the trial, the defendant also has the right to have his or her attorney cross-examine the witnesses summoned by the prosecution. A famous example of the importance of this right is the 2005 trial of Michael Jackson. Jackson faced criminal charges, including sexual abuse of a minor. The media reported extensively on the accusations of the primary accuser and on the horrible crimes that the prosecution’s witnesses alleged that Jackson committed. The public was shocked when the jury found Jackson innocent. What the jury heard, but the public did not, was the cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses by the defense.
When questioned by Jackson’s attorneys, the witnesses contradicted themselves, revealed ulterior motives for tarnishing Jackson’s reputation, or otherwise showed themselves to be untrustworthy. If the jury had only heard (as the television audience did) the original testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses, without the cross examination by the defense, they almost certainly would have found Jackson guilty. The verdict of innocence was because the information revealed in the cross examination was more than sufficient to establish reasonable doubt.
What if the Defendant Really is Guilty?
If there is incontrovertible evidence that the defendant committed the crime, then the defense cannot establish reasonable doubt. In that case, the best choice is for the defendant to plead guilty to the charges, instead of facing a trial in which the jury will almost certainly find him or her guilty. The defendant often enters a plea bargain, in which, by pleading guilty, the defendant receives a lesser penalty than he or she would have received if found guilty during a jury trial. In the United States, more than 90 percent of criminal cases result in plea bargains. Only a fraction of them go to trial.
The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin will Defend Your Legal Rights
If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to have a Greenville criminal defense attorney who understands your legal rights as a defendant and is committed to upholding them. Contact the Law Office of H. Chase Harbin for criminal defense representation in Greenville, South Carolina.
Chase Harbin is a Criminal Defense Lawyer who practices in Pickens and Greenville, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 17 years now. Chase Harbin believes in defending the accused. Learn more about his experience by clicking here.