ABC 57 Special Report: The trouble with trials
The Constitution guarantees a speedy and public trial for criminal cases.
It also allows for a trial by jury for civil cases.
However, very few people take advantage of these rights.
“The system would break down if every person exercised their right to a trial,” South Bend attorney Stan Wruble said.
In St. Joseph County, statistics show fewer than two percent of court cases are resolved by trial, and fewer than one percent jury trial.
For felony cases alone, fewer than seven percent went to trial last year.
“It’s your choice whether or not to go to trial or to accept a plea,” Wruble said.
As a defense attorney, Wruble often helps clients make that decision.
He was also a public defender for seven years.
“It’s a very tough job,” Wruble said.
Preparing for trial is one of the toughest tasks for both Wruble and his clients.
“There is a lot more work going to trial as a defense lawyer because you want to try to anticipate everything the state is going to put up, and then you want to have your cross examination ready,” Wruble said.
On the other side is Prosecutor Ken Cotter and his staff.
They come to hundreds of plea agreements with different defense attorneys every year.
“Most of the cases are resolved by an agreement,” Cotter said.
There are several reasons for this.
Sometimes, it is what is best for victims.
“For example, in a molestation when the father of ‘Johnny’ had been molested, having to have to go into court and have to say those things in front of not only the strangers but in front of their father, that’s hard to do,” Cotter said.
Other times, a plea agreement benefits the suspect, lessening potential punishment.
“There is still that incentive for a person to not commit a crime in the future. But why would we want to waste the court’s resources and the judge, because we only have four criminal judges?” Cotter said.
Saving those resources is the final reason for choosing a plea.
Both Cotter and Wruble say the justice system – a system built on the right to be judged by jury - just can’t handle a trial for each and every criminal.
“We don’t have enough judges, we don’t have enough jurors, probably. We don’t have enough courtroom space for everyone who is charged with a crime to go to trial,” Wruble said.
But Wruble says innocents should always go to trial.
“If a client tells me they are not guilty but they want to plead anyway, to something they didn’t do, I tell them they need to find another lawyer,” Wruble said.
That is why why the trial is sacred, even if it’s not often used.
In the end, justice is served but the method is up to the accused.
The decision to plea or not to plea can be a risky choice that could make all the difference for everyone involved.
“I’d rather have 100 guilty people go free than one innocent person be convicted. I hold that true,” Cotter said.