Common Misconceptions About Criminal Cases in California

Interviewer: What are any other misconceptions that we haven’t covered yet that people have, because they watch too much TV, about the criminal justice system?

Paul Geller: You know, sometimes people will say, “How can you represent these people? What if you really know they did it?” The majority of cases in the criminal justice system are not what you see in movies and television where it’s some highly complicated murder scheme. Yes, those cases do occur and yes, there are times where we as defense attorneys are representing someone where, factually, maybe something occurred, but that’s not our job to make that determination.

Our job is to represent our client as best as we possibly can, given the fact gathering that was done by police and forcing the prosecution to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s rarely black and white: “How can you represent someone who did it?” It’s not that we’re simply trying to “get them off.”

The majority of the time defense attorneys are put in a position where we have to analyze the facts, analyze the situation, and then talk to our clients about the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case and, if need be, try to mitigate. Having said that, I go into every case, as every defense attorney should (unfortunately many of them don’t), looking for the way to exonerate the client completely – that is, a dismissal of the case or a “not guilty” verdict or the case to go to trial.

Interviewer: So you’re saying a lot of attorneys will just look at it as damage control?

Paul Geller: I think too many “defense attorneys,” and I use that term loosely, unfortunately sometimes simply go in there to plea bargain right away. They’re really doing, not only their clients a disservice, but they’re doing a disservice to the system. They want to take the money and run.

I’ve had colleagues that I’ve known for years – both that I’ve encountered when I was a prosecutor and being on the defense side – who literally have said that to me: “I just want to make as much money as possible,” while doing as little work as possible, that is, which blows me away.

You’re dealing with cases that really can affect people’s lives years from now, even something as minor as a DUI, let alone something much more serious. We have to take the approach that we are looking to force prosecutors to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt. That does not mean once a case in the system; that means going even further back into the time of filing a case. Should it be filed or not?

Defense attorneys should be calling prosecutors and explaining to them why a certain case shouldn’t be filed and really trying to present the proper perspective at that point in time, let alone once it’s already in court, which oftentimes – and any honest prosecutor will tell you – their hands become tied once the case is already in court and in the system. Then, the defense attorney is left to try to talk to a judge and/or convince a client to go to trial because the prosecution will not be able to prove it.

So, once a case is in the system it really is difficult for prosecutors who have to answer to supervisors to simply get the case dismissed. So defense attorneys really need to take an aggressive approach right from get-go. Again, the majority of cases though, once that ball does start to roll, become, “How do we deal with the fallout here?” and being reasonable about what the evidence is, what the risks are, and trying to properly analyze that and find a just conclusion of the case.

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