Why George Zimmerman won’t just plead guilty and save us all some money.

What plea to enter and at what time you enter it can have as much of an effect on the outcome of the case as the underlying “truth” of your innocence/guilt.

I’m not ever really up-to-date on current affairs. I know you know this.  Usually I have to google “Nancy Grace” to find out what the masses deem important legal topics.  I have been keeping my eye on the Treyvon Martin thing, though.

Oddly enough it’s not a huge topic among the local criminal defense bar.  Probably because it’s not much of a surprise.  We see this stuff all the time, even if Al Sharpton doesn’t get involved.

Anyhow, “big” cases always draw a lot of attention to one of my favorite things in criminal law: the plea of not guilty.  Why do I love it so much?  For a few reasons.  First, a plea of not guilty in a “big” case really seems to upset the masses.  I love upsetting the masses.  Especially when it causes people to take a closer look at the criminal justice system.  Second, it’s fun to say.  Try dropping it into non-legal conversation any time somebody asks you if you did something and you’ll see what I mean.  “Hey, did you remember to take the garbage out?” “Not guilty.”

I find it amusing that people go nuts when somebody pleads not guilty at an arraignment in a big criminal case.  The media loves to use that in headlines.  Don’t believe me?  Watch what happens if George Zimmerman gets charged with killing Treyvon Martin.  He’ll enter an initial plea of not guilty and people will go nuts.  “How can he say he’s innocent!”  Or, “Why won’t he just plead guilty and stop wasting tax money.”

How could he say he’s not guilty?  I’ll tell you how. Because he can, that’s how.

He’s got a constitutional presumption that he is, in fact, not guilty.  Everybody charged with a crime does.  Don’t like that? Ok. Change the Constitution.  Until you’re willing to do that, things will keep moving along like they have since we booted the Brits out of the colonies and started governing ourselves.  That pesky Bill of Rights is always messing up our lives, isn’t it?

Forget how he can do that, why would he plead not guilty?  Everybody (including himself, of course) know’s he guilty, right?  Let’s pretend that’s true, for a minute.  If he’s my client, he’s still entering a plea of not guilty.

Why?  Because even when you want to enter a guilty plea, there is a time and a place for everything.  What plea to enter and at what time you enter it can have as much of an effect on the outcome of the case as the underlying “truth” of your innocence/guilt.

In my fictional situation, Zimmerman would be asked to enter a “formal” plea at one of the initial court dates.  Unless Florida works in a manner completely different than Illinois (which, I hope, it does), the Prosecutors will walk into that arraignment knowing all the details of the police investigation, having been informed of what all the witnesses (including Zimmerman) had to say, knowing what testimony and evidence the grand jury witnesses revealed, and knowing the details of their case from front-to-back.  On the other hand, Zimmerman’s lawyer will know what his client told him.  At that point in the case it’s like the two sides are playing poker, with the prosecutor having seen everybody’s cards and the defense knowing only half of his own cards.

In this business, information is everything. “Facts” are the cards.  Want to see a nervous lawyer?  Watch a one having to defend a trial in a case where there is no requirement that the lawyers exchange information beforehand.  In this game, as in life, knowledge is everything.  Just ask G.I. Joe and Kool Moe Dee .

What’s that got to do with George Zimmerman, Treyvon Martin and every person involved in any criminal case that ever got Nancy Grace’s guts in an uproar?  No attorney in their right mind is ever going to enter a plea of guilty until all of the information has been exchanged and “we” know what “they” know… because they might just be wrong about something.  It’s happened in the past.

It’s got nothing to do with guilt.

It’s got nothing to do with tax money.

It’s got everything to do with the Bill of Rights and knowledge of the case.

I don’t know if Zimmerman is going to get arrested and charged.  With every passing day it does look less likely.  I do know, though, that if he’s charged he’s going to enter an initial plea of not guilty.  I’d expect nothing less.

Author: matthaiduk

Matt Haiduk is a criminal defense lawyer in Illinois. He loves his dog. And pizza.

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