The Maryland police officers who are defendants in the Freddie Gray trial just won what could be a big legal victory, even though their trials are a long way off. The court recently granted a request by the officers to have their cases tried separately. Putting aside the facts of the Gray case specifically, the ruling gives us an opportunity to consider the benefits of trying cases separately when there are multiple defendants.
Can Defendants Get Separate Trials?
Many crimes involve more than one perpetrator, and there can be multiple defendants charged with one particular crime. We tend to assume that they all will be tried together, in one trial, even if they are each charged with a different crime. Generally, doing that makes sense. If witness will be the same and physical evidence will be the same, why have two separate trials just because there may be two separate defendants?
Criminal defendants have a right to ask the court for a trial separate from their co-defendants. There may be a lot of reasons why this is not just beneficial, but in fact, may be necessary to preserve a criminal defendant’s due process rights.
The Benefits of Separate Trials
The biggest reason why a separate trial may be ordered is when there is a risk of one defendant “tainting” the other. Assume, for example, that one person shoots a convenience store clerk and the other stays in the car and drives it away when the crime is over.
Surely, both can be charged with homicide, even though only one pulled the trigger. In the minds of a jury, shooting someone may be perceived as worse than “just” driving the getaway car. The “getaway car” defendant may be concerned that a jury may, in its anger towards the shooter, convict both without analyzing each defendant’s facts and evidence separately. The “getaway car” defendant may not even want the perception of being associated with the shooter.
Disadvantages to Separate Trials
There are some disadvantages to separating trials, however. There could be an inconsistent verdict. One defendant could be convicted and the other acquitted, on almost identical facts. The defendant whose trial is first may be at a disadvantage because the second defendant now knows what the witnesses will say about the incident.
There is also the risk that the first defendant, perhaps already convicted, or pursuant to a deal, testifies against the second.
In higher profile cases, like the Freddie Gray case, if a verdict causes unrest or social disorder, the later defendants may also be concerned about getting a fair jury that is unaffected by public perception or by what is happening around them.
Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Like almost every legal decision in a trial, decisions can have good and bad side effects. There is rarely a right or wrong choice for every case, which is why it is vital to have an attorney that can weigh the options as to your particular scenario.
Criminal trials are often won by decisions made before the trial even starts. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience in trying criminal cases. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.