EMPOWERING YOURSELF AS A CRIMINAL DEFENDANT: The three decisions that are yours and yours alone.
If you have been charged with a crime in Oregon, you must get a criminal defense lawyer to advise you. But your lawyer is not there to simply tell you what to do. In fact, some decisions in your case are yours to make.
From Arrested to EmpoweredA police officer believes you have broken the law. Maybe he hands you a citation full of his handwriting and tiny print that somewhere tells you to appear in court. Maybe he reads you your rights, which sound familiar from TV and movies, but you've never really thought about what they mean in real life. Maybe he puts you in handcuffs, and jails you. Few events are as frightening, disrupting or disorienting as being charged with a crime.
Now you must get a lawyer, not just to advise you about your case, but to empower you to make certain decisions. In fact, as a criminal defendant in Oregon, there are three decisions that are yours to make, and yours alone; your lawyer may not make them for you. If you gain a basic understanding of them, your relationship and communication with your lawyer will be all the better for it, and you'll take back some of the power from the authorities that want to convict you.
Decision #1: Enter a Plea or Go to Trial?As an Oregonian and American, you always - I repeat: always! - have the right to force the prosecutor to prove his case against you beyond a reasonable doubt. What almost always happens, though, is the prosecutor will offer you some sort of "plea bargain." He'll want you to plead guilty to something, even if it's not exactly what you were charged with, so he can get an easy conviction without going to trial. Defense attorneys will advise you to take the plea if we think it's better than risking a trial, where the conviction and punishment would likely be worse for you. But make no mistake. This decision is yours, not your lawyer's. True, your lawyer is an expert, and you should not disregard her advice. But you should understand it before you decide whether to take it. Ask your lawyer why she believes you will be convicted and punished worse at trial. Ask your lawyer if there is anything that could be done to get something better, and have her explain her thinking. Have your lawyer explain what "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" really means in your case. Once you and your lawyer have communicated well about this, and you have a good handle on the risks, you get to make the decision. After all, it's your life and your liberty on the line!
Decision #2: Judge or Jury?If you do decide to go to trial, you will have to choose whether you want a judge or a jury to decide if you are guilty or not guilty. You will definitely need your lawyer's help here, but again, it's your decision. Judges and jurors are all human beings. Neither is necessarily better at figuring out the truth. But, unlike judges, jurors are not part of the government or officers of the court. They're regular people in your community, and it is a sacred right to have the final decision about your guilt or innocence made by regular people - people in between you and the government. Why would you give up this right? Well, some types of cases are too much for people's prejudices. Or maybe your lawyer knows you will get a really good shot with a specific judge. Talk this out with your lawyer, and you'll get the final say.
Decision #3: Testify or Remain Silent?Finally, at trial you always - yes always! - have the right to say nothing. It's the prosecution's job to prove your guilt. You don't have to explain anything. But explaining your side at trial might be in your best interests. Juries often want to hear from defendants, so they'll want you to testify and explain your side. They're not allowed to hold it against you if you don't, but they're human beings, and they might. You and your lawyer should have thorough discussions about whether you should take the stand in your own defense. You will have to tell the truth. You'll be under oath. And, you'll not only have to answer the questions your lawyer asks; you'll have answer the prosecutor's "cross examination" questions as well. So, talk to your lawyer about whether you make a good witness for yourself, how you sound when talking about your case, and whether you risk saying something that incriminates you. Practice it with your lawyer before going to trial. Understand what testifying means for your case. In the end, it's your call!