A Criminal Case by Honoré Daumier 1865

Criminal defendants in Massachusetts have a right to represent themselves at court as well as a right to testify during their trial–regardless of their attorneys’ advice.

Despite these rights, it’s usually a bad idea for defendants to speak on their own behalf at any court proceeding.

Aside from the obvious danger of self-incrimination, there are at least two good reasons why defendants should leave the talking to their lawyer.

First of all, most criminal defendants don’t understand the context in which they’re speaking.

The vast majority of criminal court hearings are scheduled to deal with matters other than the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

For example, the purpose of a bail hearing is to determine whether the defendant is likely to appear for his future court dates.

To give another example, pretrial hearings are set to deal with discovery issues and to provide an opportunity for the defense counsel and prosecutor to discuss a plea agreement.

These hearings–and many others like them–are not designed for either side to directly argue the facts of the case.

Most criminal defendants fail to understand this. Instead, they take any court date as an opportunity to assert their innocence and refute the charges against them.

The second reason why, in my opinion, defendants should refrain from speaking is due to their tendency to get emotional.

A defendant is, for obvious reasons, full of emotions throughout the criminal process. And these emotions can very easily get the better of him if he is given a chance to speak.

This can result in displays of anger and vulgarity which never do any good for the defendant’s cause.

By leaving matters to the lawyer, these dangers can be avoided.

There are, however, times when it seems appropriate for a defendant to speak on his own behalf.

For instance, I will occasionally get a client who has recently completed some type of drug treatment or anger management program. If the defendant seems eager to share these positive facts with the judge and the opportunity presents itself, then it’s often best to let the defendant speak for himself.

As with nearly every legal question, whether or not a defendant should speak on his own behalf is best determined by the facts of the particular case–considering things such as the defendant’s disposition, the judge’s willingness to hear from the defendant, and the nature of the case at issue.