How to Decide to Go to Trial or Take a Plea Deal

Police officers pointed to handcuff person

When you are facing criminal charges, one of the toughest decisions you may have to make is whether or not to take the case to trial or accept a plea deal. What should a defendant consider when deciding whether to go to trial or take a plea? What are the ramifications of taking a plea? What is at risk when going to trial? Each case is unique, but there are general terms and guidelines one should consider when making a decision that can change their future.

What Percentage of Criminal Cases Go To Trial?

The vast majority of criminal cases in the US result in a plea deal. In fact, it is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of State-level cases result in a plea. At the federal level, perhaps less than 2 percent of cases go to trial. This is attributed to the idea that our modern judicial system is designed to result in convictions by the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser charge than they originally faced. However, if a person is deciding not to plead guilty and instead defend their rights at trial, there are important considerations.

What to Consider When Deciding Whether or Not to Go to Trial

Criminal Conviction 

A criminal conviction can result in job-loss, fines, jail time, and offender registration in the case of a sex offense conviction. A judgment of guilt results in a criminal conviction whether through a plea deal or loss at trial. Following a guilty judgment, the defendant is considered a criminal and will be subject to the consequences thereof. An experienced defense attorney can help clarify the extent of repercussions specific to the case.

The Prosecutor

The prosecutor’s goal is to get a conviction. Their role in a trial is to present enough evidence to convince twelve jurors that the defendant is guilty. If they are able to achieve that goal without the extensive work and cost of going to trial, they may prefer to agree on a plea.

The Evidence/Lack of Evidence 

In a trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to demonstrate guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” After reviewing all the details and evidence of an investigation can the defense poke enough holes to present a reasonable doubt of the prosecutor’s argument? Consider specific witnesses, other pending charges, and the jury’s perception of the evidence they will encounter.

The Sentencing Hearing

Sentencing guidelines exist for every level of criminal conviction from misdemeanors to a felony of the 1st degree. Sentencing guidelines vary greatly from fees to prison time or worse. Depending on the level, sentencing may be recommended or mandatory. 

After the arrangement is made for the defendant to enter a guilty plea, the prosecutor can choose to argue for sentencing if a sentence is not agreed upon. There is no guarantee that the judge will give the agreed upon sentence in a plea deal. At the sentencing hearing, both sides present their reasons for sentencing goals. An experienced defense attorney can advise the defendant on the possible sentences and will strategically fight for the client’s goals.

Trial Tax 

Many citizens may not be aware that sentencing following a loss at trial may be greater than if the conviction was sustained through a plea. While it may not seem fair to receive greater consequences for standing up for your rights, it is the norm in most criminal sentencing.

Trial Experience

The level of trial experience of a defendant’s legal team is an important factor to consider. An experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to convince a few jurors or just one to doubt the prosecution’s argument. An experienced defense attorney may be able to interrupt the narrative of the prosecution that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

The Jury

Defendants have the right to trial by a jury of their peers. Therefore, the jury is made up of local eligible citizens to where the alleged crime was committed. Their background experiences, level of education, social views,and even their social media habits may impact how they perceive the evidence and arguments presented. Since few if any of the jurors have experienced jail time, will they try to estimate what conviction delivers a “good” sentence? Will they try to connect their own dots? Or will they make a decision based solely on the evidence presented? An experienced trial lawyer will get to know the jury pool’s perspectives to the greatest extent possible. 

The Pre-Trial Process

There are many steps in the process of a criminal case. Law enforcement and prosecutors may charge a person with multiple, high-level offenses, but the possibility of a plea deal may be discussed during the pre-trial. An experienced criminal defense attorney can use the pre-trial hearing to the defendant’s advantage.

How An Attorney in Delaware, OH Can Help With the Decision To Accept a Plea Deal or Try the Case?

The decision to accept a plea or to go to trial is the defendant’s decision. While no defense attorney can make that decision for them, an experienced criminal defense attorney can advise the defendant on each of the considerations listed in this article and possible outcomes.  

If you are made aware you are the subject of a criminal allegation, it is imperative that you immediately contact a criminal defense attorney to defend your right to a fair and just trial. Obtaining quality representation early-on may help you win the case and avoid potentially life-altering consequences.  

Written by The Law Office of Brian Jones, LLC


New York Times. August, 2008.


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