The vast majority of all criminal cases end with a guilty plea of some kind. A person charged with a serious offense might plead guilty in order to avoid a more severe sentence and a jury trial. A person charged with a minor offense often pleads guilty just to avoid the hassle of more court appearances. Sometimes people plead guilty, even when they aren’t guilty, and sometimes people who are guilty do not plead guilty. If all of that sounds terribly confusing, let me see if I can help you understand.

It is an expensive and complicated process to have a trial before a jury. There are jurors to summon, court personnel to schedule, witnesses to subpoena, the lawyers must prepare, and countless other details. All the while, the accused is worrying about the outcome, wondering if the judge will send him or her to prison or impose a substantial fine. And while our jury trials are probably the fairest system of justice in the world, they are far from perfect!

Even when a person is guilty of a crime, a prosecutor may not be able to prove his guilt with admissible evidence. Conversely, when an accused really is not guilty, there may be circumstances that seem to indicate guilt. Memories fade, witnesses move. Some people lie with ease while others are nervous and unbelievable even when telling the truth. For all these and many other reasons, the outcome of a jury trial is never guaranteed.

So, should you enter a guilty plea? Here are some guidelines that may help you answer that question. Of course, you should carefully discuss this with your attorney.

Reasons you might want to plead guilty:

·       You are actually guilty.

·        A reduced sentence.

The prosecutor has so many cases, he can’t possibly take them all to trial. Consequently, to encourage you to plead guilty in order to save the time and expense of a trial, you may be offered a negotiated sentence that is significantly less than what you might reasonably expect to receive after trial. Some charges may be dropped, less serious charges may be substituted for more serious charges, and fines or sentences may be decreased.

·       Special circumstances.

While no one is ever encouraged to plead guilty unless they are, in fact, guilty, there are times when it is simply too costly to maintain your innocence. Especially with many minor offenses, it may be quicker and easier to simply plead “no contest” (nolo contendere) and pay a fine. In this way, you are not admitting guilt, but you are agreeing to pay a fine or accept a sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has said, “[T]he plea of nolo contendere has been viewed not as an express admission of guilt but as a consent by the defendant that he may be punished as if he were guilty and a prayer for leniency.” (North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 1970) This may be helpful if repeated court appearances are a bigger drain than simply paying a fine. And sometimes, even with more serious offenses, there may be special circumstances in which you would plead guilty, even if you maintain your innocence. There may be evidence that would tend to prove your guilt, making conviction probable and consequences high. Again, the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged your right to plead guilty while maintaining that you are actually not guilty “when… a defendant intelligently concludes that his interests require entry of a guilty plea and the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt. (North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 1970)

Reasons you might not want to plead guilty:

·       You really are not guilty.

·       You are guilty, but don’t think there is sufficient evidence to prove it.

And sometimes, the evidence fades with time.


·       You have nothing to lose by taking the case to trial.


You may have already been convicted in other cases, so an additional conviction may not have any significant consequences. Or, you may think the plea offer is no better than the Judge’s probable sentence if you are found guilty. Of course, if the plea offer gets better, you’ll need to reconsider.

Other considerations:


·     You can have a trial without a jury.


If there were reasons for your actions—even if you are legally guilty—or if there are unusual or mitigating circumstances, you may choose to have a trial before the Judge without a jury. Judges are people, too, and really do try to do the right thing.


·     Probation allows your actions to be monitored for months or years.


Even if you receive a light sentence, it will usually include a period of probation. This means that if you again violate the law, you may be punished under the terms of your probation and for the new crime. Even a light sentence can have a significant impact on your future.


·     All sentences have consequences.


Even relatively light sentences usually include fines and fees, a number of hours of Community Service (hours you must work for the county or a non-profit organization), a monthly supervision fee, and regular visits to a Probation Officer.


Please understand that you can either demand a trial, or you can plead guilty; but you can’t do both! By pleading guilty, you give up certain rights, and you surrender your right to challenge the evidence. During any negotiations for a recommended sentence, you can certainly challenge evidence and deny anything or everything; but once you decide to accept a negotiated plea offer, all challenges are over! Don’t keep complaining about witnesses, evidence, police statements, confessions, or anything else. You either accept the offer or not—your choice; but if you accept it, don’t keep complaining about the evidence or asserting your innocence.

The attorneys in the office of the Circuit Public Defender are able and willing to—actually love to—have jury trials. While our role is to help you resolve your case as you desire and with the best result possible, we look forward to trials.

When a plea is offered in your case, we pass it to you, our client, and discuss the pros and cons of the offer. But please don’t think we are urging you to enter a guilty plea. Sometimes, a plea may be the best resolution of a case. At other times, it is not. But it is always your choice. After all, you must live with the results of your decision.

I hope these guidelines will help you better understand the options for resolving your criminal case. But these are only broad guidelines, and you should discuss your case completely with your attorney. There are many other considerations that may arise in a particular case, and each case is unique. We work for you, and want to help you in every way possible.

Michael Parham
Circuit Public Defender