When I first meet with a potential client, one question burning in their mind is, “Does my story even matter?” Many feel like they have been wrongly accused, that what they are accused of really isn’t that bad, that the police or prosecutor are out to get them, or that their actions were justified based on their understanding of justice and fairness. They believe that if they can “just tell their side of the story,” the case will go away.
Many people incorrectly assume that a criminal court will determine what, or who, is right or wrong. However, the only question the court is trying to answer in a criminal case is “Can the prosecutor prove the elements of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt?” If the answer is yes, the case will not just go away.
Take Assault (U.C.A. 76-5-102) as an example. The statute says that an assault occurred if a defendant either (a) attempted, through unlawful force or violence, to cause bodily injury to another OR (b) committed an act, again through unlawful force or violence, that led to or created a significant risk of leading to bodily injury to another. If those actions occurred — even against a despicable victim — it was an assault, and the defendant will be found guilty.
Often (especially in cases involving domestic violence or another circumstance in which the defendant and alleged victim know each other well), a client will say, “If the judge knew how big of a jerk that person is, they would dismiss my case.” This example highlights the basic misconception about what is really going on as a criminal case moves through the legal system — the judge cannot consider if a particular person is a jerk. The Utah Rules of Evidence were created, in part, to keep a trial from becoming a popularity contest. A judge or jury is not supposed to decide a case based on who they like better. Even the “best” person in the world is capable of breaking the law, and even the “worst” person in the world can be a crime victim.
Despite all this, I believe my clients’ stories do matter. Even if explaining their story does not end the court case, the context of actions can influence the final outcome, and expressing that context helps a client feel heard. I always provide context of any incident to the prosecutor and the court. However, this must be done at the right time and in the right way. For this reason, it is important to tell your story to your attorney when asked, and then trust that they will use the information at the right time and place. It may not be when you expect it, but the strategy behind telling the story matters.
Sometimes, evidence that the alleged victim is a jerk — someone with a history of violence or assaultive behavior against you — can make the case go away. Other times, evidence that the alleged victim is a jerk — someone who is loud and obnoxious and nobody likes — could be used by the prosecutor to show that a defendant was motived by hatred, jealousy, revenge, or annoyance when they hit, pushed, kicked, etc. the alleged victim.
As a general rule, information about mental health issues, medical issues, employment problems, addiction, or relationship problems will not be allowed at trial because they are irrelevant to proving the facts of the case. However, these things all matter to a defendant who wants to be heard. A skillful defense attorney will convey this contextual material to a prosecutor in such a way that they negotiate a settlement more appropriately tailored for the type of action that was committed and the reasoning behind why it happened. For example, a person who steals to feed an addiction will typically stop stealing if they get help for their addiction, or a person who acts out aggressively due to mental health issues or environmental stressors will typically behave more appropriately when provided with the care they need.
While telling your story does not usually make a case go away, it can help ensure that any sentence imposed is best suited to help the defendant and to protect the victim and society at the same time.
One of my favorite parts of being a defense attorney is helping my clients find their way forward through the criminal justice system and helping them feel heard during that process. Telling your story can be a very important part of any criminal defense case, and it helps me understand how to best help my clients. You should feel heard through your process; you deserve an attorney who will listen to you.
Contact Pearson Butler online today to arrange a free case evaluation.
Author: Kevin Kemp