Entering into a guilty plea
The first goal of a criminal defense attorney should be to figure out a way to get a case dismissed. If unable to accomplish this task and the case does not present a good chance for success at trial, the defendant is left with the sole option of entering into a guilty plea.
Engaging the Commonwealth or prosecution in negotiations
This process begins with the defense lawyer engaging the Commonwealth or prosecution in negotiations. Sometimes the parties reach an agreement on how to resolve a case. When this happens, the judge will typically adopt the parties’ agreed upon recommendation. Other times the defense and prosecution do not agree. In this circumstance, the parties may present different recommendations to the judge, leaving it to the court’s discretion to decide the outcome.
Resolving a case by plea
Before resolving a case by plea, the defense attorney is obligated to review with the defendant certain rights that he or she will be giving up by entering a plea, along with the legal consequences of doing so.
The attorney should also ensure the defendant is doing so knowingly and voluntarily. Lastly, he should ensure there is a factual basis for the plea.
A trial judge will inquire of the defendant on these topics before accepting a guilty plea or admission of facts. These rights and questions taken together compose what is referred to as the judge’s plea colloquy.
Your lawyer will go over them with you, and the judge will address them once you are before the court.
Consequences of pleading guilty or admitting facts
The judge is also obligated to establish that the defendant understands the consequences of pleading guilty or admitting facts. Most judges will first ask the defendant’s age, level of education and fluency in English. If English is not the defendant’s first language, the judge will ensure the defendant understands and can effectively communicate with the interpreter present in court.
Additionally, the judge will ask the defendant if he or she is under the influence of any drugs, alcohol or medication that could affect their ability to understand what is going on, and specifically, the nature of the court proceedings. The judge will also ask the defendant if he or she is entering into the plea knowingly and voluntarily, and/or if anybody has forced or promised the defendant anything in exchange for entering the plea.
The judge will further advise all defendants that if he or she is not a United States citizen, that they could be subject to deportation, removal from the United States, or denial of naturalization, depending on the crime(s) charged. This immigration advisement is required for all defendants, regardless of citizenship.
The judge will also inquire directly of the defendant and defense attorney if they understand and have discussed the elements of the crime(s) being admitted, applicable maximum penalties associated with the charge(s) and any defenses and motions that could have been filed with the court. The judge may even ask the defendant if he or she is satisfied with the services of his or her lawyer.
Giving up constitutional trial rights
By entering a guilty plea or admission, a defendant gives up his many important constitutional trial rights.
The defendant has the right to elect to proceed to trial by judge sitting alone or by a jury. If the defendant elects to proceed with a jury trial, the defendant and his or her lawyer will have the opportunity to select 6 jurors in District Court, or 12 jurors in Superior Court, from the cross-section of the community, who will determine guilt or innocence.
All of these jury members must unanimously agree or disagree as to whether the Commonwealth has proven each and every element of the crime(s) charged by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If one jury member cannot agree, this is referred to as a hung jury, and the trial will start over from the beginning at a later date, if the Commonwealth so desires.
During the trial
During the trial, the Commonwealth will produce witnesses and evidence in an effort to meet its high burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense will have the opportunity to question or cross-examine the Commonwealth’s witnesses and challenge its evidence. After the Commonwealth is done with presenting its case, the defense will have the opportunity to present witnesses and evidence on the defendant’s behalf. However, it is not obligated to do so.
The defendant will also have the option of testifying in his or her own defense, or remaining silent, and if the defendant elects to remain silent, the jury may not draw any inference from the silence or consider it in any way when determining guilt or innocence. If the defense presents any witnesses or evidence, the Commonwealth can equally cross-examine the witnesses and make challenges.
Once this process is complete, the parties proceed with closing arguments before judge sitting alone or jury deciding the issue of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. By entering a guilty plea or admission of facts, these trial rights are forever waived. The judge will ensure the defendant understands each of these trial rights and is both knowingly and voluntarily giving up these rights.
Next step in the plea process
The next step in the plea process is for the Commonwealth to read aloud facts it would prove if the case proceeded to trial. Once done, the defendant will be called upon by the court to admit the truth of the stated facts. By making this admission, the defendant gives up his or her right to remain silent and against self-incrimination, which remained with him throughout the case.
Once this process is over, the court will conditionally accept the defendant’s guilty plea or admission and proceed with determining an appropriate sentence.
Defense and the Commonwealth agree on a sentence
When the defense and the Commonwealth can agree on a sentence, most of the time the judge will accept the defendant’s plea without question and impose sentence in accordance with the parties’ agreed upon or joint recommendation. However, in certain circumstances, the judge will inquire of the parties as to why he or she should adopt the recommendation. This may require further explanation and advocacy by parties to ensure their desired outcome.
If the parties cannot agree on a sentence
If the parties cannot agree on a sentence, the final decision is left up to the judge. In this circumstance, oral argument will be required to persuade the court to adopt a particular sentencing recommendation. In District Court, if the judge does not adopt the defense sentencing recommendation, the defendant may withdraw his plea and proceed to trial, or accept the counteroffer posed by the judge. In Superior Court, a defendant may only withdraw his plea if the sentence imposed exceeds the Commonwealth’s recommendation.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, contact the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. today for a free consultation. Our office has extensive experience resolving cases short of trial with a high success rate of avoiding criminal convictions, preventing its clients from serving time in jail, or when incarceration is unavoidable, absolutely minimizing the term of service. Let us help you today!