We often see, on both the big and small screen, heroes wrongly charged with criminal cases who then decide to defend themselves in court. The hero then turns everything upside down in the court proceedings and finally proves himself innocent, freeing himself of the accusations. However, that’s not real life. Although you have a legal right to represent yourself, it’s never a good idea.
Irrespective of the research and studying you may do to prepare yourself for court proceedings, you will never match the knowledge level that a lawyer has. Listed below are a few reasons why you shouldn’t opt to defend yourself if you ever face a criminal charge.
There may be more at stake than you know: While it’s easy enough to look up the potential judicial penalties for the conviction of a specific offense, that’s not always the end of the story. The penalties you may face for a conviction also typically include non-judicial penalties as well. Furthermore, there may be more to judicial penalties than you realize.
Your lack of experience makes you easy prey for the prosecuting attorney: The prosecuting attorney may act like they just want to help you and resolve your case as quickly as possible for your benefit, the reality is that it is their job to secure as many convictions as possible. The prosecutor is not your friend. On the contrary, they will take advantage of your innocence.
You may have a defense that could prevent a conviction: Not all defendants have a viable defense, but they are not required to prove that they are innocent. It is the prosecutor’s burden to prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Consequently, the job of a criminal defense attorney is often focused more on finding flaws in the State’s evidence and argument than on developing a defense. Attorneys spend years in school and in practice learning how to identify and exploit flaws in State cases and how to present a winning defense if necessary.
You are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to negotiating the terms of a plea agreement: Obviously, the primary objective of any criminal defense attorney is to avoid a conviction altogether. However, sometimes a conviction is unavoidable. When that is the case, the focus shifts to negotiating a guilty plea agreement that is as advantageous to the defendant as possible. A prosecuting attorney knows that a defendant does not have the experience or skills to negotiate an agreement without an attorney, so why would the prosecutor bother negotiating any of the terms? An experienced defense attorney, on the other hand, can find the leverage needed to negotiate on your behalf.
The judge will expect you to understand both the law and the rules: A judge cannot force a defendant to hire an attorney in a criminal case. However, judges expect a pro se (self-represented) defendant to understand the relevant laws as well as abide by the court rules and procedures. That means you must be aware of deadlines, discovery rules, and courtroom procedures. As a layperson, there is no reason you would already know any of this. Trying to learn all of it while also worrying about the outcome of your case is too overwhelming for most defendants. You’re most likely ill-equipped to stay on top of the many documents you’ll need to file, as well as the many deadlines involved.
It will take even longer than usual to get your case heard: As a pro se defendant, you won’t be given priority in the busy court system. This means that your case will take even longer than it otherwise would, costing you time at work and with your family.
You don’t have the connections an attorney has: You’ll go into the courtroom to represent yourself having never met the judge, the other attorney, or the bailiffs in the courtroom. An attorney would already know, and be on good terms, with most of these people.
You’ve never interviewed testifying witnesses: You have never conducted a deposition. You don’t know how to effectively conduct witness interviews, from depositions all the way to direct and cross-examinations, at trial. You don’t know how to impeach a lying witness, or how to properly convey the inconsistencies to the jury.
You’ve never presented opening and closing arguments: That means you won’t know how to present your case in the best possible light. You may argue “from the heart”, but those arguments often don’t matter much legally. A good defense attorney will know what points to emphasize that will legally win the day – all while arguing with passion and conviction for your cause.
There are some things you just shouldn’t do yourself: You wouldn’t cut your own hair or set your own broken leg because there are some things that require the assistance of a professional. Going to court is right at the top of the list of things you should never do yourself.
When it comes to criminal defense, don’t quit your day job. If you are serious about adequately defending yourself in the court of law, get a professional criminal defense attorney to represent you.