So you’ve described a crime. A suspect’s been caught, he’s all lawyered up, and now there’s a juicy trial scene you can’t wait to write. Maybe you’ve been inspired by all those great courtroom scenes you’ve seen on TV and in movies—all those wonderful speeches by lawyers; the surprise witnesses (which are almost never really allowed, by the way); the shocking new pieces of evidence (also rarely allowed); the high emotions of defendant, victim, and jurors. Courtrooms are a beautiful setting for drama.
But here’s the thing–in real life, few cases ever make it to court. In the United States, over 95% of criminal cases are settled with a plea bargain.
A plea bargain is pretty much what it sounds like: a negotiated deal between prosecutor and defendant. Generally, the defendant agrees to forego the trial and plead guilty to lesser charges. If there are multiple charges involved, the prosecutor might drop some. Or the defendant might plead guilty to the original charge but receive a reduced sentence. Judges usually approve plea bargains, although on rare occasions they may reject them. Recently, for example, a judge rejected a plea deal for the former LA County Sheriff because, the judge said, the resulting sentence was too lenient.
Plea bargaining usually begins early in the case but becomes more earnest after the preliminary hearing (or grand jury proceeding), which is when the defense gets a fairly thorough preview of the prosecution’s case. A plea deal can continue during the trial, right up until the moment the verdict is announced, but usually an agreement is made long before the case gets to court.
The biggest benefactor of plea bargaining is the system itself. Our courts are already overburdened, and the justice system would come to a screeching halt if plea bargains didn’t exist. Can you imagine if the number of criminal trials were increased by 2,000%? Prosecutors benefit because plea bargains make their conviction rates look good. Defendants might benefit by getting a reduction in punishment. Arguably, victims might benefit by avoiding the rigors of testifying in court, as well as by having faster closure to their cases.
But plea bargaining is controversial. Victims’ advocates and those who favor harsh punishment argue that offenders get less than they deserve. Even worse, though, innocent defendants may be pressured by overburdened defense attorneys into pleading guilty. Even if the defense attorney doesn’t exert pressure, the innocent defendant is faced with a terrible gamble: plead guilty and get punished for a crime she didn’t commit, or take her chances at trial, knowing that if she’s convicted, she’ll end up with an even more severe punishment.
Personally, I think that’s a plot point that’s received way too little attention. Imagine the angst your character will experience while she decides whether to say, plead guilty to manslaughter and do ten years, or go to trial on murder charges and possibly end up in prison for the rest of her life. Picture the pressure she’ll be under from her lawyer, her friends and family. The mental anguish she’ll face no matter which decision she makes. There’s so much fictional gold to be mined here, you might want to consider skipping that boring old trial scene altogether.