If you have had no previous involvement with the criminal justice system in Colorado, you likely have some common misconceptions about criminal law from watching popular television shows. In reality, criminal defense and criminal cases are significantly different than what you might see on TV. Here are six differences between what you might expect to happen in a real criminal case vs. what might be depicted on a popular show.
1. How Long the Case Takes
In television crime dramas, cases are wrapped up within 30 minutes to an hour, beginning with the police investigation and arrest and culminating in a sensationalized trial. By contrast, real-life criminal cases can take several months or more after someone has been charged. Criminal cases must be thoroughly investigated, and they can involve numerous court appearances before a trial ever occurs. The court's schedule also can cause a case to take some time to resolve.
2. Whether the Case Goes to Trial
On TV shows, most of the stories show criminal cases resolved through jury trials. Real criminal cases are much less likely to go to trial, however. According to Pew Research, only 2% of federal criminal cases go to trial. In state courts, Pew Research reported that just 3% nationally went to jury or bench trials. This means that the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved before trial through plea agreements or dismissals.
In many cases, defense attorneys can negotiate favorable plea agreements that help their clients resolve their criminal cases with much lower penalties than what they might face if they were convicted at trial. However, good defense lawyers will be prepared for trial in case the prosecutor fails to extend a favorable plea offer. Your lawyer should explain the potential risks and benefits of trial to help you reach a decision.
3. The Defense Lawyer's Character
In many television shows, criminal defense lawyers are depicted as people with serious character flaws. Television defense attorneys might be deceptive or engage in other questionable conduct that would lead to disciplinary action in real life. Good criminal defense lawyers are honest with their clients and the court. They do not engage in theatrics and generally demonstrate ethical conduct and a good moral character.
4. The Outcome of the Case
Most television crime dramas depict criminal cases in which the prosecution is always victorious, and the defendant is always found guilty. In real criminal cases, good defense lawyers thoroughly investigate cases, interview witnesses, review evidence, and work to build the strongest possible defense strategy to protect the rights of their clients. In some cases, a defense lawyer might identify constitutional problems with the prosecution's case and file motions to suppress evidence. A successful motions hearing can lead the prosecutor to no other choice than to dismiss the charges against a defendant. In cases that go to trial, defendants are also sometimes found not guilty and acquitted.
5. The Prosecutor's Actions
In many television shows, the prosecutor will meet with the defendant and discuss their case. In real criminal cases, defense lawyers keep their clients away from the prosecutors, and prosecuting attorneys typically only talk to defense attorneys instead of their clients. This is because a prosecutor can use whatever a client says against them, and defense lawyers strive to prevent their clients from making statements that could be used against them.
6. Last-Minute Surprises
Unlike television, there are rarely any last-minute surprises in real criminal cases. Courts do not like trials by ambush. The prosecution must share the evidence they intend to rely on at trial with the defense, and both sides prepare lists of potential witnesses they will call to testify. The defense lawyer and prosecutor also file motions in limine to provide a scope of the types of evidence that will be admitted and excluded at trial.