If the actual criminal justice system in Mississippi were anything like it is in films or television, then every defendant would be innocent (or at least heroically justified), and every one of them would give an impassioned speech about his or her innocence (or that justification) while on the stand. In truth, one of the more difficult decisions criminal defense lawyers have to make is whether to put the accused on the stand – especially if that person is innocent of the crime.
Why is that? For one thing, jury trials often happen a long time after a person is charged with a crime. Sometimes it is months; sometimes it is years, depending on what the charges are and how much discovery there is to review and document. Witnesses – for either side – are asked to recount (often in minute detail) how they were feeling or what they were thinking at the time, and any little deviation could be used against them. Most people cannot remember exactly what they had for breakfast or which shirt they wore a week ago; so how could they be expected to remember every single detail of an event that occurred six months ago?
Another reason why an attorney may not choose to have his or her client take the stand has to do with cross-examination. This issue came up recently in an article in The New York Times, which summed it up this way: “Unlike an ordinary conversation, in which one can steer away from unpleasant topics, the very nature of the opponent’s questioning is to make the witness uncomfortable.” Think about the average person’s response to discussing an uncomfortable topic: sweating palms, squirming in the seat, trying to avoid eye contact – all of these are normal responses to dealing with awkward situations. And all of them could elicit a negative response from a jury, who might unconsciously view them as signs of guilt.
The importance of strong preparation
There are times, however, where the accused must take the stand. In those cases, one of the most important things a criminal defense attorney can do is prepare the client for the upcoming cross-examination. How that preparation is handled is decided by the attorney and the circumstances of the specific case. The American Bar Association offers some ideas about preparing checklists and goal-specific questions, but it is virtually guaranteed that the client will be run through an exercise wherein he or she is questioned by the prosecution. A critical aspect of this preparation is to help the client feel more at-ease while being asked uncomfortable questions, that way the jury can see and hear an accurate reflection of the facts without being negatively influenced by the witnesses’ demeanors. It also helps the client get used to talking aloud and speaking in public (which is one of the top fears for most people), and being prepared to tell the client’s story both on direct and during cross-examination is a crucial part of a successful strategy.
Every client and every case is different, and the strategies used by your own attorney will depend on your circumstances. Just remember that the decision of whether you should testify is not to be taken lightly, and you should trust your criminal defense lawyer’s decision when it comes to taking the stand.
If you have questions about the criminal justice process in Mississippi, or if you are in need of an attorney, we invite you to contact Taylor Jones Taylor. Our Southaven criminal defense attorneys serve clients throughout DeSoto County and the rest of North Mississippi.