Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past year, you have at least heard of the Zimmerman Trial. This blog post will not comment on what we believe the outcome of the trial will be; it will instead address a legal issue which many Americans outside of the legal profession have trouble understanding: although you have the constitutional right to testify in your own trial, you also have the constitutional right to remain silent – to NOT testify or incriminate yourself in trial. In fact, since criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, many clients prefer not to testify at all.
The Fifth Amendment provides all criminal defendants constitutional protection against self-incrimination. If the defendant chooses to exercise his or her Fifth Amendment right, the judge presiding over the trial must inform the jurors that the defendant’s refusal to testify is neither an indication of guilt nor of innocence. This is a very common misconception among Americans. Many Americans infer guilt from a defendant’s refusal to get up on the stand and testify. However, this should not be the case. Defendants are innocent until proven guilty; not the other way around. Several reasons the defendant may choose not to testify include: the opportunity for the prosecution to paint the defendant in a negative light by asking about previous convictions; the potential that the jury’s opinion will be swayed if the prosecution unveils past convictions; or the defendant’s personality or behavior on the witness stand could leave a bad impression to the jury.
Perhaps most importantly, the defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence. Instead, it is the prosecutor’s job to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant does not come across well on the stand, leaving a bad impression on the jury – perhaps due to social ineptitude or anxiety – the jury could potentially find an innocent man or woman guilty of a crime he or she did not commit. Some people are just not good at speaking to large groups of people – especially if they are forced to plead their innocence on national television. Lastly, the Fifth Amendment was written to protect innocent defendants from incriminating themselves on the witness stand; not to create a sense of doubt surrounding a defendant’s decision not to testify.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.