Plea v. Trial

What is a plea?

A huge majority of the cases in the criminal justice system are resolved via plea offers. A plea is an agreement between the defendant and the State. The State of Florida is represented by the State Attorney’s Office. The specific person assigned to the case is called an Assistant State Attorney or an ASA. The defense counsel will contact, bargain, and attempt to find a reasonable resolution to the case. The ASA will convey an offer or different offers to the defense counsel.

A criminal defendant is afforded a right to be duly informed of all the offers conveyed by the ASA to him/her despite the defense counsel believes the offer is good, bad, or normal. If the defendant decides to accept the offer the defense counsel will arrange a plea date with the Judicial Assistant (JA). During such hearing the Judge will conduct the plea and sentence the defendant to the agreed upon plea offer.

By accepting a plea offer you are renouncing to many constitutional rights. You are giving up your right to go to trial, to have a trial with a jury of your peers, to remain silent and that such silence cannot be used against you, to bring and present evidence, and to cross-examine the evidence of the state. However, to accept such offer you must willfully believe that is in your best interest and that you decide to give up these rights, in order to enter into that specific plea agreement.

In order to enter into a plea you must do so voluntarily, under no coercion or based on other promises. You must not be in probation in Florida, Federal Probation, or in any other state, since accepting a new plea, will violate the other probation. You must be aware that if you are not a US Citizen, you will be subject to deportation. You must be able to read and understand one language. (If that language is not English you must inform it to the court and they will provide you a translator, which will be present or via telephone for you at the plea hearing) You must have had enough time to speak with an attorney, and have the attorney review the plea form with you and answer all the questions you might have before entering the plea agreement. Lastly, you cannot be under the influence of any medication that will impair your ability to understand the nature of the proceeding, or the influence of alcohol, drugs, or any substance.

The Judge will likely limit the plea colloquy to these terms, however, if the judge has questions for you, before you answer ask your lawyer whether you should answer the questions, and if so, do it candidly.

What is a trial?

A trial is commonly referred to as your day in court. There the accused has the right to remain silent. Also, such silence cannot be used or interpreted by the jury as against the accused since he or she are simply exercising their constitutional right. The jury must decide the facts of the case. The judge will instruct the jury on the law to be used and the instructions in the courtroom.

How is a trial conducted?

With respect and fairness. To begin with, you must treat the court personnel such as sheriffs, bailiffs, clerks, and staff with respect. More importantly, be respectful and honest to the Judge and the Jury members.

Voire dire- Jury Selection

This is a latin term. Is a very important, yet artistic way to connect with the jury pool. The idea behind the voire dire process is that the State and the defense counsel are allowed to ask questions and tell stories and analogies to educate the jury pool in order to select an impartial jury to try the case. Parties can select jurors, and strike jurors for cause or for challenges.

Opening statement

The State and the Defense counsel are allowed time to address the jury. During the opening statement there are no rigid evidence rules. So, generally speaking both parties get a fair chance to tell a story of what they argue happened. Evidence cannot be introduced during opening statements but sometimes depending in the strategy of the litigators, there are promises by the attorneys to the jury that the evidence will show this or that.

Direct examination

This is the process where there are witnesses in the witness stand. The examination of all witnesses is done while observing the Florida Rules of Evidence. The State begins by presenting its witnesses and asking questions with the hopes of introducing evidence that can be testimonial, demonstrative, or circumstantial. There is no limit on witnesses, however, before trial both parties are required to inform the universe of witnesses plan to use to avoid unduly surprise so that all parties can prepare accordingly.

Cross-examination

Cross-examination is also a fundamental right. Meaning, that any accused is afforded the right to cross-examine the witnesses presented by the state against him/her. During the cross-examination stage of trial, the opposing party (in this case the defense counsel) is allowed to ask questions to the witnesses presented by the State and basically contest or intrigue about the questions and testimony given to the State during the direct examination. Both parties are also allowed to contest the credibility of the witnesses by utilizing the proper legal techniques pursuant to the Florida Rules of Evidence.

State’s case in chief

Once the state is done (meaning they are done with direct, and the defense is done with the respective cross-examination of each one of those witnesses) with all of its witnesses, the State will rest its case in chief.

Defendant’s Witnesses

Before presenting the defense witnesses, if any, the Defense will generally present a Judgment of Acquittal (JOA). Basically, is an argument presented to the judge, where the jury is not making a decision, and the defense argues that based on the evidence presented during trial, the case should not be given to the jury to decide, and the judge must decide that there are no dispute in the facts and that those facts do not meet the elements of the crime in question. Typically, this JOA argument is denied, and the trial continues.

If the defense do have witnesses, then the defense team goes on to present their witnesses. On the same token, these witnesses, are allowed to be cross-examined by the State.

JOA Argument

Just as addressed previously, the defense will again argue the JOA, now including the evidence introduced or presented by their witnesses. If the court now does agree with the defense the defendant will then be acquitted without having the jury delibarate.

Closing argument

This is the last opportunity for parties to speak to the jury members. There, the attorneys will use persuasive and compassion techniques to either seed reasonable doubt, or on the other hand, argue that there is enough evidence to convict the defendant.

Jury Deliberations

Once the case is concluded, the Judge will instruct the jury on the facts to be determined by them, and what law to use. The jury must unanimous decide beyond a reasonable doubt that each and all the elements of the crime are present. During deliberations the jurors are instructed several strict rules to comply and are expected to be fair, impartial, and not to convince one another. Once the jury is done with their deliberations they come back to the courtroom with a written verdict. After the verdict is read, the judge will ask each and every one of the members of the jury whether that was the true and correct verdict. The judge will then excuse the jury and the trial will be over.