plea deal or trial

Plea Deal or Trial: When Should You Plead Guilty in a Criminal Defense Case?

Plea deal or trial? It’s a decision many defendants have to make.

In the United States, plea bargaining is the primary means of ending a felony case. Around 94 percent of state felonies end with a guilty plea, and 97 percent of federal convictions wrap up the same way.

The issue with a plea deal is that it requires a defendant to plead guilty – even in cases where they are innocent.

For most people, the decision comes down to what makes the most sense to you based on your lawyer’s advice. So when is going to trail the best option, and when should you take a plea?

Let’s break down the pros and cons of pleading guilty vs. not guilty.

Pleading Guilty: Pros and Cons

Let’s start with a guilty plea because it is the route taken by nine out of ten felony defendants.

The reason plea deals are so common is in part because there are pros that impact people in real terms.

A guilty plea offers advantages like:

  • Your case wraps up faster
  • Your lawyer and court fees tend to be less (no trial time)
  • Your lawyer reaches an agreement with the prosecutor
  • Your case could come with reduced charges or a lighter sentence
  • You avoid the uncertainty associated with jury trials
  • You skip the media attention related to criminal prosecutions

For someone who is guilty or who is innocent but is very unlikely to do well in court, a guilty plea offers real benefits. Yes, it requires you to admit guilt, but it may also allow you to move on faster.

Problems with Pleading Guilty

That brings us to the cons of pleading guilty. These are very real, and the most devastating one is pleading guilty despite being innocent. A guilty plea comes with jail time and fines, and those are unjust when the defendant didn’t commit the crime.

Additionally, a guilty plea doesn’t rule out all uncertainty. The defense and prosecution may work out a deal amongst themselves. However, it requires the judge’s agreement. If the judge doesn’t like the deal, they can reject it. All of a sudden, the defendant has a longer sentence than they bargained for, which is particularly devastating when they are innocent

Finally, plea deals may not mean much when there are statutory minimums at play. A prosecutor can’t offer less than the minimum, and you could get the same sentence by entering a not guilty plea and going to trial.

Pros and Cons of Going to Trial

For some, a guilty plea is not an option. Either they refuse to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit or believe they can win their case in court.

A trial has real advantages for these kinds of cases. It gives you more time to build your defense and poke holes in the prosecutor’s argument. Trials also buy more time to spend with family and get affairs in order before a prison sentence.

The most important benefit of the trial is that it allows every defendant the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution. These rights are critical for wrongly accused defendants to see justice. It is also the only way to escape a felony record.

Trials also serve defendants when the plea bargain offered by the state is weak or doesn’t benefit them. In cases where the plea bargain or a jury trial is a coin toss, then a trial may be a better idea.

Risks Taken in a Trial

The biggest problem with a jury trial is that it takes the decision out of your lawyer and the prosecutor’s hands and places it with the jury.

Despite the science of jury studies, they remain difficult to predict.

The precariousness of a jury trial is heightened by the fact that you face the maximum penalty. If a jury doesn’t like a defendant, they could face a more severe punishment than they would have received from the prosecution. It could also be more severe than they deserve. 

Making the Decision Between Plea Deal Or Trial

Your criminal defense attorney in Houston can’t decide for you.

They are ethically obligated to share the prosecutor’s offer with you. They must also share your plea with the prosecutor.

A defense lawyer also is not allowed to tell you what to do – it’s the law. Nor can they admit guilt for you against your wishes.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCoy v. Louisiana that a lawyer must follow their client’s wishes. They must do this even if the lawyer believes the client’s decision is against their best interests.

Pleading is a Conversation

The decision to enter a plea or go to trial mostly comes down to the conversations have with their lawyer and their family.

You’ll be asked to weigh the pros and cons as they apply to your case and think about the future.

For example, if the prosecutor is offering a lesser charge, you might consider how it bodes for your prospects compared to the current charge. If the prosecution offers an assault charge rather than an assault with a deadly weapons charge, is it worth pleading guilty?

Finally, pleading guilty is a conversation with yourself. If you are innocent of the crime, and can’t stomach the idea of going to prison for it, then you need to decide whether the risk is worthwhile. Only you can make that decision.

Plea Bargaining is a Fact of Life in the U.S.

Right or wrong, almost all felony cases in the United States end in a plea bargain. A plea bargain offers a favorable, predictable sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. But pleading guilty isn’t always the right strategy – and it isn’t always right morally.

Whether you choose a plea deal or trial is a conversation you have with your defense attorney, your family, and yourself. No one can legally decide for you.

Do you have questions about going to trial and aren’t sure where to turn? Get in touch today to learn more about defending your rights.