Criminal shows on television, such as Law and Order, often show defendants testifying at trial to show their innocence. However, in real world criminal trials, defendants generally do not take the stand if they don’t have to. Some of my clients may want to testify at trial; however, in most instances if they do not need to testify, I advise against it. The jury is instructed that if a defendant does not testify at trial, it cannot be used against them. In other words, it is not evidence of guilt. The jury cannot use the fact that the defendant didn’t testify to determine guilt.
In this article we discuss why defendants may not want to testify at Philadelphia criminal trials
The Burden of Proof Rests with the Prosecution
In Philadelphia criminal cases, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. In other words, the prosecution has to prove that the defendant committed the alleged crime(s). The defendant does not have to prove anything, i.e., their innocence. In addition, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the alleged crime(s). There cannot be a shred of reasonable doubt, which is a high burden to bear.
Criminal defense lawyers present defenses that poke holes in the prosecution’s theory. We do not need the defendant to take the stand. For instance, in a murder trial, the prosecution presents their star witness who testifies that she saw the defendant shoot the victim.
As it turns out, the eye witness is unreliable. She is the defendant’s ex-girlfriend and is known for trying to get back at the defendant. Therefore, the bias of the witness can be questioned. There are several other witnesses who testify that the ex-girlfriend was nowhere near the crime scene; therefore, she could not have witnessed the crime.
If the witness was the only evidence that tied the defendant to the crime, then the prosecution did not meet its burden to prove that the defendant committed the murder.
Related: Silence is Golden
Defendant’s Fifth Amendment Right to Self-Incrimination
The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution states that defendants have the right to protect themselves from being compelled to be a witness against themselves in criminal cases. They do not have to testify and they cannot be compelled by the prosecution to testify. However, if defendants decide to testify, they cannot plead the fifth during cross-examination. Once defendants take the stand, they will be cross-examined by the prosecution.
During cross- examination, the prosecution can attack the defendant’s credibility and can bring in evidence of crimes of dishonesty committed by the defendant. If the defendant is innocent but was convicted of prior dishonesty crimes, the jury may not believe his testimony. Therefore, there is a risk associated with the defendant testifying at their own trial.
The Defendant Would Not Be a Good Witness
Sometimes, we advise defendants not to take the stand and the reason has nothing to do with legal theory or evidence. The defendant may not be a good witness. They may be overly emotional, nervous and/or anxious, which may come across to the jury that the defendant is being evasive during cross-examination. Thus, not appearing genuine or credible on the stand. If so, the jury is more likely not to believe the defendant’s testimony.
In most Philadelphia criminal cases, defendants don’t take the stand at trial. However, this does not mean if the defendant takes the stand, they will lose the criminal trial. Some cases require the defendant to take the stand. Each case is different and an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer would come up with the best defense and strategy for your case.
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If you are charged with a crime in Philadelphia and would like to discuss your case with a lawyer, contact David Nenner, who has been a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer for over 30 years. 215.564.0644
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