Recently a friend told me that it seems as though criminal defense lawyers are less needed because Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner, a former defense attorney himself, is now the top prosecutor in the city. My friends comment is a perfect example of how news stories, television, the internet, and even neighborhood rumors don’t reflect the reality within the criminal justice system.
Many Philadelphians have accused Krasner of refusing to prosecute cases or offering “sweet” deals to lifelong criminals, which sometimes allow them to avoid jail entirely. It’s important to understand that Krasner’s office is not operating much differently than previous district attorney administrations, but the focus is on Krasner because of his previous employment as a criminal defense lawyer and the fact that he never worked as a prosecutor during his legal career. The truth is that all of Krasner’s predecessors offered pleas defendants out of necessity and economics.
News, TV, Internet, Rumors VS. Reality
The fact is, most criminal cases resolve in pleas (over 90%!). All District attorney offices, not just Philadelphia, must offer plea deals and if there are no offers, accused persons would have no incentive to plead guilty. If defendants didn’t enter into an offer or negotiated plea, all of the cases would proceed to trial and even a well-funded district attorney’s office, such as Philadelphia, wouldn’t be able to handle the sheer volume of cases going to trial. Even if the office attempted to handle all of these cases, it would lead to burned out assistant district attorneys and support staff who would ultimately leave for higher paying private sector jobs or government jobs which are less demanding and, in many cases, more satisfying personally and financially.
Most people fail to understand this reality and simply believe that a DA like Krasner is offering a “sweet” deal because he doesn’t care about keeping people safe or is attempting to advance some political agenda. I am not defending all of Krasner’s decisions, but just pointing out that characterizing him as a person who doesn’t care about justice is wrong. Krasner, like previous District Attorneys, understands that his resources are limited and is simply attempting to manage an office based on those limitations. Even “slam dunk” cases fall apart for reasons which are often never reported or reported by members of the press who aren’t lawyers and don’t understand criminal procedure.
The Role of Defense Lawyers
Criminal defense lawyers have an ethical responsibility to defend clients to the best of their abilities. This means achieving the best possible result through either a plea deal or trial. Frequently, criminal defense lawyers will point to the weaknesses in cases and a good prosecutor will consider weaknesses prior to offering a plea deal. Criminal cases are often moved to trial because the plea offer is simply unacceptable and the defense lawyer has advised their client that the judge hearing the case will not impose a harsher sentence than what is being offered following a conviction. This happens in every type of case, including those involving the illegal possession of drugs, narcotics, guns and firearms. Further, most of the general public fails to understand that some criminal defendants honestly believe that they are not guilty of what they are being accused of and refuse to plead guilty even if their defense counsel has advised them otherwise and the plea offer is favorable. A defense lawyer who exerts too much pressure to accept a plea when an accused claims innocence will soon find himself facing an ineffective assistance of counsel claim and/or an appeal of the plea.
The Role of Judges and Juries When Cases Go To Trial
Judges make legal determinations during jury trials which focus on the admissibility of evidence and testimony. Juries judge the facts which focus on the credibility of witnesses and determining whether or not the Commonwealth has met its burden of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Judges should make determinations based on legal precedent in the form of case law or statutes and not on their own personal beliefs, which is sometimes contrary to what is found in the law. People who take issue with what happens at trial or following a plea are usually uninformed about what evidence was actually admissible at trial and what occurs during it in the form of credibility of the witnesses or evidence production.
Elements of Offenses and Burden of Proof
I have written in many of my previous blogs and stated in my videos, podcasts, and newsletters that the burden of proof is always on the Commonwealth and that burden is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest legal burden under the law and much higher than any civil standard (by preponderance of the evidence). During a trial the judge will advise the jury about the burden of proof and will instruct them that they have to follow that burden regardless of their political or personal views. Keep in mind that jurors, prior to being selected, do not know each other and therefore must operate in a vacuum and confine their decision to the evidence presented and those jury instructions.
Prosecutors often offer favorable plea deals because there is a concern about obtaining a conviction due to the credibility of witnesses or mishandled or lost evidence. Finally, juries and even judges, are very unpredictable, even when evidence appears overwhelming for the prosecution or defense.
If you’re charged with a crime in or around Philadelphia don’t assume that the district attorney’s office will ignore or offer you some type of favorable plea deal. This is especially the case if you are charged with a violent offense and have prior criminal history as first time offender programs like ARD, AMP, or Section 17 are reserved for non-violent first time offenders. The focus of these pre-trial programs is on drug addiction and rehabilitation and not on violent offenders. For more information on criminal defense strategies please keep reading this blog, listen to my podcast, or watch my instructional videos.