Murder cases carry so much potential punishment that a lot of times I do have my client testify because I want to make sure that they get their say before the jury passes judgment on them.
Because if you're convicted of a murder case, a lot of times you're going to get such a high sentence that you're not going to be out of prison for a long time or sometimes you can get a life sentence without the possibility of parole depending on the circumstances of the case.
So, I want to make sure that my client gets the opportunity, if they want, to say their piece in the case. In other words, to defend themselves. To say where they were, what they were doing. Again, it's going to depend on the defense.
To give readers useful information about defendant testimony on a Penal Code 187 murder case, our California criminal defense lawyers are providing an overview below.
Defendant Testimony May Not Be Best Defense Strategy
Sometimes though, it's not a good idea for the defendant to testify because sometimes the prosecutors do have some good ammunition against them. So, if they do take the stand of course the defense attorney gets to ask them questions first and it will go smooth, and the defense attorney will lead them right down the path to put out the most relevant and helpful information possible.
But once the defense attorney is done asking questions, the prosecutor then gets a chance to ask questions.
If the prosecutor has a bunch of prosecutor-related information to be able to attack the defendant with and make them look bad, that's really one of the biggest things you have to weight when you're deciding whether or not a criminal defendant is going to testify in a murder case.
Sometimes if a defendant doesn't testify, then the good evidence that the prosecutor has against them the jury won't get to see that evidence. So, if that's the case, obviously you want to know what that evidence is and how important that is to whether or not the person is going to be found guilty or innocent.
Also, you're going to want to evaluate if the prosecutor can get any of that evidence in, is there anyway that the defendant can counter that by testifying about that evidence and damaging some of that evidence when they actually get on the stand and testify.
Also, if the person has a prior criminal record and some of that prior criminal record might come in and that would be a reason not to testify if that record is going to look bad in front of the jury and hurt them.
Defendant's Prior Statements
Another big area that comes up when deciding whether a criminal defendant should testify at a murder case, is whether or not that person has given a prior statement.
That's a big consideration because if you've given a prior statement and there's incriminating information in that statement and that statement's been ruled on by the judge and the statement's not coming in against you unless you testify, and then by testifying the statement comes in.
If that statement is incriminating and could be argued that it's an admission on your part or could refute some good evidence that was put in at the trial, if you testify, then that's a huge consideration as to whether or not you testify in a criminal case.
Is the Defendant a Good Witness?
I think the last consideration when deciding whether you should testify in a murder case is, how good of a witness you're going to present as. I've had some clients that present as very good witnesses.
They can answer all of the prosecutor's questions, are adamant about their innocence, are able to get our theory of the case out there. Really, what I'm looking for if the defendant testifies, is it going to benefit us? Is it going to make my job easier in the closing argument to argue that my client is innocent?
If the answer to those questions is yes, and I think my client is going to make a good witness in the case, then yeah, I may want to have my client testify.
If on the other hand, the client does not speak well, is very nervous, has a bunch of skeletons in their closet and is really not going to be able to say anything that's going to help us, it would not benefit our case for defendant to testify.
In my experience, I've had cases where the prosecutors played a tape of my client and my client said he's innocent. Do we need him to say that again? It's just a dangerous move having your client testify in a case because it gives the prosecutor a chance to ask him questions.
If after the questions are asked the jury believes that the client is not credible or the client is not telling the truth, then obviously that's a huge downfall for the defense in a case.
Reviewing Murder Case Strategy With Your Lawyer
So, before you decide whether or not you're going to testify in a murder case, you want to sit down with your attorney, let your attorney go through everything. That's what I do.
We talk about exactly what your testimony would be and how it might benefit the case and then we go through the cons. What would be bad if you testified? What bad things could come out and how could that impact the case?
Once you done this and made your final decision and you move forward and the person either rests on the state of the evidence or calls witnesses and then decides not to testify.
Of course a jury cannot hold it against you that you're not testifying, you actually get a jury instruction in all of the Los Angeles courthouses even in murder cases, that if a defendant doesn't testify the jury cannot hold that against him — can't look at that in any way.
But, if you decide that it is in the best interest of the defendant to testify, then we go through everything. We set-up our direct examination. We talk about what potential pitfalls there could be on cross-examination and then we move ahead in a powerful manner and the defendant testifies, and of course, we're looking to get that not-guilty verdict.