Justice For All - July 2012
The procedural and substantive rights of a citizen charged with a crime were prominent concerns during our country’s founding and remain so to this day. In Iowa, the Rules of Criminal Procedure require that indicted defendants be aware of certain rights before they forego a trial and plead guilty. Guilty pleas to serious or aggravated misdemeanors can be done in writing. Defendants who plead guilty to any felony must go through a formal “plea colloquy”.
Plea colloquies take place in open court in front of a district court judge who conducts the proceedings. The defendant and defendant’s attorney are present as is the County Attorney to represent the interests of the State of Iowa and in my case the citizens of Clayton County. The judge makes statements and asks questions to determine whether the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily giving up his or her rights with an understanding of the consequences of doing so.
Every defendant must understand they: are innocent until proven guilty, have the right to an attorney who is court appointed if they cannot afford one, and can demand a speedy trial by jury. The burden will be on the State to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard of proof in our justice system. Defendants in Iowa not only have the right to cross-examine all prosecution witnesses, they have the right, before the trial, to get a summary of what witnesses are expected to testify to. This summary is called the Minutes of Testimony. Defendants may testify in their own defense but also have the right to refuse to testify without that invocation being used against them. Defendants have the power to subpoena witnesses for trial, forcing them to appear as a witness for the defendant’s case-in-chief if they refuse to do so voluntarily.
In addition to their trial rights, judges inform defendants of the maximum and minimum punishments for the offense charged and what the defendant will be receiving under any proposed sentencing agreement. At any time a defendant can ask a question of the judge, stop the proceeding to speak with their attorney privately, or change their mind about pleading guilty before a conclusive finding of guilt is made. If a defendant chooses not to go forward nothing that he or she has said up to that point can be used against them in any subsequent trial.
The judge must find a sufficient factual basis that the defendant committed the crime and will make reference to the prosecution’s evidence to establish this. The defendant will be asked to admit that the expected testimony of the State’s witnesses, provided in the Minutes of Testimony, is substantially true, or at least that there is enough evidence that a judge or jury is likely to convict. A judge might ask the defendant to describe in his or her own words what happened. The answer can turn into a very emotional event in the courtroom.
Our legal system carefully protects the process by which indicted defendants surrender their rights in order to plead guilty to a crime. These defendant’s fundamental protections can sometimes create challenges for prosecutors but should nonetheless be readily accepted as the necessary parameters to bringing about justice for all.
Last Updated on Thursday, 20 September 2012 11:01