Earlier today, the NY Times published an article about criminal defendant's 6th Amendment right to jury trial and the need for criminal defendants to push their cases to trial. On its face, it sounds like a great theory. If everyone insisted on a jury trial, the system as it currently stand, would crumble as there are not enough judges, prosecutors, courtrooms, funding and jail cells available if everyone insisted on trial. The system would implode and it would shed light on the broken plea-deal system currently in place. Public debate would ensue and changes would be made. Perhaps there would be a dramatic reduction in drug prosecutions. Petty crimes would no longer be charged. And prosecutions would be reserved for the most serious crimes. In a perfect, utopian world, this would succeed.
Unfortunately, we do not live in the theoretical or ideal world. We live in the real world with real consequences for our actions. In order for the above scenario to work, everyone would have to exercise their right to trial. Every... Single... Person. Period. And of course, that's not happening. Why? Because plea agreements and reduction of charges drive the criminal justice system. What I mean is, if you're charged with a felony but you maintain your innocence, are you willing to risk a lengthy period of incarceration and the life-long stigma for being labeled a felon when you can take a plea deal for no jail and a minor misdemeanor? Tough to say, right? Most people think they know the answer until they're faced with that dilemma; plead guilty to a crime you didn't commit in order to avoid the possibility of being convicted of a more serious charge or maintain your innocence and risk losing everything at trial. You see, trials are a winner-take-all proposition. One side wins and the other side loses. And you don't want to be on the losing side.
In addition, people don't act collectively when their personal liberty is at stake. People act in their own best interests. They cut deals all the time to save themselves jail time and / or felony conviction consequences. Drug dealers roll on their sources. Co-conspirators roll on the people who make up the members of the conspiracy. People act to save their own skin. It's human nature. And there's no way to organize a mass demonstration of 6th Amendment rights because people who have been charged with a crime don't have a way to organize in such a fashion. It literally becomes an "every man for himself" scenario.
Innocent people plead guilty to crimes every day in this country in order to avoid a conviction on a more serious charge. Innocent people are wrongly convicted of crimes they didn't commit, following jury trial, based on a whole host of reasons. Some of the reasons people have been wrongly convicted include bias or prejudice of the jurors, improperly obtained evidence, police tampering, witness mis-identification, incorrect evidentiary rulings by the judge, prosecutor impropriety and flat out incompetent defense counsel. Yes, a lot can go wrong at trial and if you lose, you could lose more than just your dignity. You could lose your freedom and liberty.
Criminal cases do go to trial but not in large numbers. The NY Times article cited a statistic that only 10% of cases go to trial in this country. That's an appallingly low number, which I believe is accurate; and sadly, in Maine, it is likely that much less than 10% of all criminal cases proceed to trial. Why? Because people are frightened. When a "good offer" comes down the pike, the defense attorney is ethically obligated to relay the deal to the client and then he or she should counsel the client as to whether they should accept the deal and the reasons behind accepting or rejecting it. And it's always the client's choice whether to accept or reject an offer. The defense attorney can never make that call for the client.
In most cases, trial is the nuclear option. You keep the option in your back pocket, in the event that things go wrong and the case can't be resolved in a way that makes sense to you and your attorney. Trials occur when the defense attorney and prosecutor can't agree on a fair outcome. And a good trial attorney can make all the difference when engaging in negotiations with the prosecutor. If the prosecutor knows your attorney is skilled in the courtroom and doesn't fear going to trial, that helps shape negotiations in a positive manner for the client. However, if the prosecutor doesn't respect your attorney's skills and/or knows your attorney is afraid of trying cases or is inexperienced, you, the client, will pay the price of a one-sided outcome. Choose your champion wisely.