From seemingly perpetual reruns of Perry Mason to the latest gritty police drama, millions of television viewers continue to be entertained by crime and courtroom dramas. To make a story fit into a one-hour chem slot, however, these shows frequently simplify or even misrepresent various aspects of criminal justice in the United States. Even Court TV typically shows only the trial phase of significant cases. Audiences would likely have little patience for any reality TV show that followed each step in the often complex, confusing and often frustratingly slow criminal justice process.
Because many people charged with crimes in California have obtained their information solely from TV, they may have incorrect notions about crimes, court procedure, and possible defenses. Here are some of the more common misconceptions we as experienced criminal defense lawyers have heard over the years.
No fingerprints and no DNA equals no conviction
There is no question that these and other types of “forensic” evidence is often key to a conviction. However, such evidence is not needed in all cases. Defendants may be established by an eyewitness or confidential informant testimony, confidential in other ways. For example, if a defendant’s roommate, without the defendant’s knowledge or consent, hides a stash of illegal narcotics in their shared home, the defendant may be convicted of possession. Eyewitness testimony or surveillance video may also be enough to support a conviction.
A case can always be thrown out if the police did not give “Miranda” warnings
Regular crime show viewers can recite these warnings from memory. However, it is not true that a case will automatically be thrown out if the police fail to properly “Mirandize” a suspect.
First, the warnings are required only when a suspect is taken into custody. Only after that may the suspect’s confession or other statements made prior to being read his rights may be excluded from evidence at trial. However, the charges are not automatically dismissed, and forensic data, witness testimony or other evidence may still be used.
Juries always conclude that a defendant who chooses not to testify is guilty
Juries are simply groups of people, strangers to each other, who are assembled to determine guilt or innocence. As with any other group, one can rarely say that they will “always” or “never” act a certain way. Juries are instructed to apply the law as it has been explained to them to the evidence presented, and the law in this instance is that no negative influence may be drawn from the defendant’s decision not to testify.
Unfortunately, jury members may – consciously or not – ignore this instruction. As such, whether to testify is among a defendant’s most important decisions. It should be made after weighing all of the pros and cons and with careful consideration of defense counsel’s advice.
The right to appeal is a safeguard against unjust verdicts
The right to appeal should never be viewed as a substitute for presenting the strongest possible case to the jury. The right to appeal does not automatically mean a new trial. The appeals court may usually only consider whether the trial judge committed legal errors and consider evidence presented at trial. Few appeals courts will second-guess a jury’s conclusions regarding that evidence.
Whether you have been charged with a state or federal crime in California, the criminal justice system is complex and often confusing. Don’t face that system alone. An experienced and capable criminal defense lawyer can guide you through the process and ensure that your rights are protected.