Mastering Criminal Defense: A Comprehensive Guide for Lawyers
As a criminal defense lawyer, you’re expected to put sufficient time and effort into every case. That’s because your legal services may be the only barrier between your client and jail time, fines, and other serious consequences. Considering everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, every client deserves access to a criminal defense lawyer who will represent them to the best of their ability. This is why it’s essential for lawyers to always look for ways to improve the criminal defense strategies they employ in court.
If you’re committed to getting the best possible outcome for every client, you should review the criminal defense basics and then delve into some strategies you might not have tried yet. You could drastically change a client’s case by learning just one or two new tactics to use in court. So, if you’re interested in making strides in upholding your clients’ rights, getting guidance on mastering criminal defense basics is recommended.
Getting Started on a Criminal Defense Case
It’s important for attorneys and clients to trust each other throughout the case, so you should prioritize building your rapport as you initiate the attorney/client relationship. You should also keep your client’s constitutional rights in the forefront of your mind as you move forward with the case, as this will guide your approach from the beginning to the end.
Build Trust with Your Clients
It’s essential for your clients to be honest with you as you work on defending them from serious criminal charges. You need to know every detail about the scenario that led to their arrest to anticipate the angle the prosecution team is likely to take. But clients are often ashamed of the accusations against them, and they’re certainly not eager to tell a stranger all the details. This is why you must work on gaining their trust.
You can do this by reassuring them that you’re there to represent them and uphold their rights by telling their side of the story. You want to make it clear that you’re on their side and will defend them from anything the prosecutors claim, all while keeping anything they tell you confidential. You need to make every client feel like they’re your most important priority, and you can prove this by always keeping them updated on their case so they know you’re constantly working on their behalf.
Make it easy for them to communicate with you by giving them a few ways to get in touch and be sure to get back to them quickly every time. Even if you don’t have anything new to report, send an update to your client explaining the next steps and what you recommend they do while waiting for the case to proceed. Managing their expectations is another way to build trust, so consider using these updates to discuss the possible outcomes of each stage of the case.
Remember Your Clients’ Constitutional Rights
During your career as a criminal defense lawyer, you’ll likely represent clients who admit they’re guilty of serious, violent crimes. Even in those cases, it’s your job to be their advocate and create a sound defense strategy that gives them the greatest chance of maintaining their freedom. If you’re finding it challenging to avoid casting judgment on your client and don’t want to withdraw from the case, keeping their rights in mind may help you focus on your duty to defend them.
These are the main criminal rights to ensure your clients are given:
- The right to an attorney
- The right to remain silent
- The presumption of innocence until proven guilty
- Protection from unreasonable search and seizure
- The right to a jury trial
- The right to a fair, public, and speedy trial
- The right to know the charges
- The right to confront witnesses who testify against the accused
- Freedom from double jeopardy
- Freedom from excessive bail
- Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
In many criminal cases, one or more of these rights may be ignored, and the accused might not even realize it. As a criminal defense attorney, much of your job comes down to identifying situations in which your client’s constitutional rights have been overlooked. This gives you a chance to focus less on whether they’re guilty of the crime and more on whether their rights are intact. When you keep their rights at the forefront of your mind throughout the case, you can be effective as a defense attorney.
Investigating the Case
Before developing an effective defense angle for the case, you must spend hours investigating all the details. Fortunately, you have numerous resources that will provide the information and proof you need to make your case. Lawyers who have mastered criminal defense spend most of their time in the investigation stage, leaving no stone unturned and no resource ignored. This might include talking to every possible witness, hiring experts when appropriate, and anticipating what the prosecution team is likely to focus on.
Use Interviews to Gather Information
The details you collect from interviews can help you start to form the defense angle of the criminal defense case. You might only use some of the information, but it’s better to have too much of it than not enough. You can use what you’ve learned in interviews to get an overview of the situation, develop an angle that makes sense, and then use other resources to support your claims.
The first interview should be with your client, as you will need to ask questions about the incident and record the answers. This is why ensuring your client trusts you enough to be honest is important, as you need as many details as possible to create the most suitable defense angle. This might require several meetings with your client until you have a strong understanding of what occurred.
Next, you need to interview potential witnesses during the discovery phase of the case. Ask your client who may have seen the incident, and then review the police report and any other documentation that might mention witnesses. You may need their testimony in court if the case goes to trial.
As you investigate the case, consider interviewing expert witnesses specializing in a specific area. For example, a medical expert can offer insight into the injuries discussed in the case, while a forensic expert can give an educated opinion of evidence found at the crime scene. Other types of expert witnesses include financial, vocational, ballistics, and mental health experts, to name the most common kinds. In general, if their statements put your client in a positive light, you will likely want them to testify in the case.
Examine the Evidence
While interviewing people is an important part of investigating a criminal case, you can also expect to have numerous documents to review before determining the defense strategy. After all, the discovery stage requires the prosecution team to provide you with the evidence they plan to use against your client. So, you should expect to examine the following:
- Police report
- Lab results
- Photos and videos of the crime scene
- Real evidence, such as weapons or bloody clothes
- Phone records
- Text messages
- Witness statements
As you scrutinize the evidence, you might discover incorrect information or inconsistencies that suggest your client could not have committed the crime as charged. For example, you might realize that your client has an alibi, the lab results are inaccurate, or the police made a serious procedural mistake during the arrest. Even a minor detail could be enough for the case to be dismissed or your client found not guilty of the charges, so it’s important to carefully analyze all evidence during the investigation.
Navigating the Pretrial Hearing
The pretrial hearing will begin once the defense and prosecution teams are done with discovery. This is when you have a chance to argue on your client’s behalf, whether you plan to challenge evidence, request for the case to be dismissed, or enter a plea bargain. Your decision should depend on the evidence you’ve reviewed, as you will need supporting documentation to get the best possible outcome for your client.
File Pretrial Motions
Before you and your client attend the pretrial hearing, you should have in mind the requests you plan to make to the court. In most cases, you’ll want to avoid a trial so you can settle the case outside the courtroom, and the motions you file at the pretrial hearing should reflect that.
One of the most common pretrial motions is the motion to dismiss. This may be appropriate if you believe the judge should dismiss one or more charges, or even the entire case. If you can show that your client’s rights were violated or that there is not sufficient evidence for the charges, the judge may agree to dismiss the case during the pretrial hearing.
You can also use the pretrial hearing as an opportunity to challenge the evidence against your client. For example, if you think a witness is biased, you can file a motion to exclude their testimony. If you believe key evidence was gathered illegally, you can file a motion to suppress it so that the prosecutor cannot use it in the case against your client.
If it’s clear that the case can’t be negotiated outside of court and is heading toward trial, you can file a motion to change the venue. To do this, you must show that the client likely won’t get a fair trial in the current court location due to publicity in that area. Your client has a right to a trial by an impartial jury, which can be impossible if the local news has covered the case extensively.
Enter a Plea Agreement for Your Client
One of the most important reasons for pretrial hearings is to give criminal defense lawyers a chance to negotiate with prosecutors. If the case does not get dismissed, you can typically still avoid a trial by entering a plea bargain. Depending on the deal the prosecutor is willing to accept, your client’s charges or penalties may be reduced if they plead guilty to at least one charge in the case.
Before you begin negotiating a plea deal, you should talk to your client to ensure they understand the process and the consequences. While many clients are willing to claim they’re guilty in order to avoid a lengthy trial, more serious charges, or a longer jail sentence, some want the chance to prove their innocence and may insist on a trial.
So, before you agree to a plea deal at the pretrial hearing, make sure your client understands the terms of the deal. It’s helpful to know what kind of result they’re hoping for and what they most want to avoid. For example, many clients want to avoid jail time at all costs and are willing to accept house arrest, community service, counseling, and other alternative sentencing options if it means avoiding jail. Other clients just want to avoid the time and expense of going to trial, even if it means possible jail time and fines. Talk to your client before the hearing to ensure you both understand the possible outcomes of any plea deals you might make.
Representing Your Client at Trial
In some cases, going to trial cannot be avoided. It may even turn out to be the most suitable option for your client if the evidence is largely in their favor and they want a chance to clear their name. However, this requires you to be fully prepared for all stages of the trial, from start to finish. Make sure you know all the steps to take for the best possible trial result.
Prepare for Jury Selection
Skilled lawyers who have mastered criminal defense do not leave anything to chance, including jury selection. You likely know that jurors must be randomly selected from the jury pool, and they cannot be discriminated against based on race, sex, religion, or other protected traits.
However, while preparing for the trial, lawyers can participate in voir dire. This is a process that allows defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges to ask jurors questions that reveal whether they may be biased or unsympathetic toward the individuals in the case.
They can then dismiss certain potential jurors based on their answers. This is a strategic way to end up with a jury that will likely listen to the facts of the case with an open mind before judging your client harshly. The questions to ask during voir dire should involve:
Their life experiences, such as whether they were the victim of a crime or have been accused of a crime before
- How much time they spend watching the news, using social media, and researching local issues
- Their background, including their education and career
Try to ask open-ended questions to encourage them to explain their answers fully. This will give you a good idea of whether they’ve heard about the case or may have biases toward your client. You can also consider body language to determine if they may be judgmental toward your client or sympathetic to the prosecution’s arguments. If you don’t believe a juror would be able to make a fair, impartial decision on the case, you can request to excuse them from the jury.
Present Your Case Effectively
After jury selection, you’ll need to prepare your opening statement. First impressions are important, so make sure the first statement the jury hears from you is compelling. The prosecutor will make an opening statement first. Then it’s your turn to present a brief alternative to their statement, explaining that the prosecutor’s evidence will not prove their case and that your client is not guilty.
After the opening statement, the trial will advance as the prosecutor presents evidence and calls witnesses to testify. During this time, you should keep in mind that the prosecution team has the burden of proving that your client committed the crime, so it’s your job to show the jury that this cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Part of this involves cross-examining the prosecutor’s witnesses in an effort to uncover holes in their story and reduce their credibility. As long as you can create doubt about the prosecutor’s accusations, you have a chance of convincing the jury that there isn’t enough evidence to convict your client. During this time, you should make use of your ability to object during the direct or cross-examination process. If you think a witness’s statement is irrelevant or hearsay, for example, you can state your objections to the judge.
Closing arguments will wrap up your part in the trial. This is your chance to leave the jury with a persuasive argument summarizing how the prosecution team failed to present sufficient evidence that your client is guilty. Once closing arguments are over, the jury will have time to deliberate before coming back with a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
Appealing a Verdict
If your client is convicted of a criminal charge, that doesn’t necessarily mean your role as their criminal defense attorney is over. If you and your client agree that it makes sense to appeal the case, you will start the appellate process. This requires you to carefully review the details of the case to determine if there may have been one or more legal errors that led to the verdict.
Consider the Grounds for Appeal
To appeal the results of a criminal case, you must show that there’s reason to believe a legal error was made that led to the conviction or sentence you wish to appeal. For example, you can state that the judge improperly allowed certain evidence to be admitted, or that they granted or denied a motion when they shouldn’t have. You can also assert that the jury acted improperly in some way or simply did not have the evidence to arrive at a guilty verdict.
Regardless of your grounds for appeal, you must have evidence to support it. The appellate court will review your statement and the supporting details. If they find that there was no error, or that any possible error did not affect the outcome, the conviction or sentencing will remain unchanged.
If it’s apparent that an error was made and that it affected the case’s outcome, the judges in the appellate court will decide on the next step. In some cases, they will reverse the verdict or reduce the sentence. In other cases, they will order a new trial to give the defendant a chance to get a different outcome.
Prepare Your Client for the Appeals Process
It’s important to ensure your client knows what to expect when appealing a verdict or criminal sentence. Make it clear that it’s not simply a way to show their disappointment with the outcome of the case. There must be evidence of a legal error that affected the verdict.
Remind your client that the appellate court judges do not have to hear their appeal, as they can refuse to do so if the case is not in that court’s jurisdiction or if there isn’t sufficient evidence of a legal mistake. You should also ensure your client knows that appealing the case doesn’t allow them to present new evidence or witness testimony to the court. Making sure they have realistic expectations regarding the appeals process can avoid disappointment at the end of it.
As a criminal defense lawyer, it’s up to you to protect the rights of your clients and do everything you can to see that justice prevails. You can do this by gaining the trust of your clients, thoroughly investigating cases, properly preparing for the pretrial and trial stages, and helping your clients handle the outcome of their case. Once these steps become a regular part of your legal process as a lawyer, you’re on the way to mastering criminal defense.