Pleading Guilty: Rights and Other Legal Aspects

 Many times when someone comes to my office after the arraignment, they tell me that they want to plead not guilty. I tell the person that the court probably has already entered a not guilty plea during the arraignment. Most people are very nervous during the arraignment and simply miss the court entering a not guilty plea on their behalf.

Once a not guilty plea is entered, a guilty finding can be entered in one of two ways. First, the person may bring the case to trial and a judge or jury can find the person guilty. Second, the person can plead guilty as part of a plea bargain.

When a person chooses to plead guilty, the person is giving up many constitutional rights. Some of these rights include: the right to remain silent, the right to presumed innocent, the right to confront witnesses against them, right to cross examine witnesses, right to a fair and impartial trial and right to file motions to suppress and appeal those rulings.

In every criminal case, the prosecutor, also called the Commonwealth in this state has the burden to the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. When a person pleads guilty he or she is relieving the Commonwealth of the burden to prove the case against them. Every person has a constitutional right to remain silent and say nothing and to be presumed innocent.

By pleading guilty the person is giving up his or her constitutional rights. The person is admitting to the facts that are alleged in the police report. Because the person is admitting to the facts, the Commonwealth no longer needs to provide evidence to prove the charges. A person may plead guilty for many reasons, the most common to receive a more lenient penalty. The Commonwealth likes pleas because it no longer needs to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

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Plead guilty or go to trial?

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What are the lawyers and the judge whispering about over there?

If you have ever sat on a jury, you may notice that there are a lot of side bar conferences.  A side bar conference is essentially a conversation between the lawyers and the judge that is kept away from the jury.  For the most part, jurors hate side bar conferences because they feel as though useful information is being kept from them. 

Side bar conferences may also annoy jurors because it takes time and slows down the trial.  A judge may call a side bar conference at any point.  The lawyers may ask the judge for a side bar conference and it is up to the judge to grant that conference.  If a side bar conference is going to be conducted, both lawyers need to approach the judge’s bench.  If the conversation takes too long, the judge may opt to have a further hearing and ask the jury to step out of the room. 

So what is really going on during a side bar conference?  Well, there is really no one good answer.  Side bar conferences are used to go over a number of issues that are inappropriate to be discussed in front of the jury.  It could be something as simple as how certain evidence or items in the court room should be presented.  A lawyer could be asking the court room to be set up in a certain fashion.  More likely is that the judge is ruling on the rules of law and if certain evidence is allowed to be admitted. 

You may find side bar conferences very annoying.  After all, secrets are no fun, but it is important that you stay patient.  The point of side bar conferences is not to keep relevant information from the jury, but to keep irrelevant information from the jury.  If the jury hears evidence that violate the rules of evidence that can lead to an appeal or a mistrial.  If the court declares a mistrial it could make them restart the case in front of another jury.  Therefore, a little patience for side bar conferences can save the process a lot of time. 

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The Very Serious Crime of Mayhem

Mayhem isn’t a charge that you hear about a lot, but it could be considered one of the most serious charges. Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 265, section 14 defines mayhem as:

Whoever, with malicious intent to maim or disfigure, cuts out or maims the tongue, puts out or destroys an eye, cuts or tears off an ear, cuts, slits or mutilates the nose or lip, or cuts off or disables a limb or member, of another person, [and whoever is privy to such intent, or is present and aids in the commission of such crime,] . . . shall be punished . . . .

The key to the charge is the intentional maiming of the human body. The punishment can be severe. If a person is found guilty of mayhem the person could serve up to twenty years in state prison. The incidents in which people are charged with mayhem usually have victims that have serious bodily injuries. People who are victims of real mayhems often have a body part severed from their body or really bad scars from purposeful disfigurement.

Sometimes, this charge is incorrectly placed on defendants. You will often see a person charged with this crime when a defendant bites another during a fight. Police often charge a person with mayhem if the bite leads to some type of disfigurement of the victim, i.e. scarring. However, for the most part it is difficult to prove that a defendant had the intention of maiming a person with his teeth during a fight. The prosecution can usually prove that the defendant meant to hurt the victim, but usually has a difficult to prove the defendant had to intent to permanently disfigure the victim in the heat of battle. Perhaps one of the most famous incidents to highlight was when Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear during a fight.

Mayhem is crime not commonly heard, but has serious consequences for all of those involved. A defendant can face up to 20 years in prison, while the victim can spend the rest of their life disfigured.

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Teen charged with mayhem:

DSS head: Agency failed abused Middleboro boy:

Video of Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear

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