Why a Defendant Wouldn't Take the Witness Stand

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By Connor Roe, Summer Associate

The 5th amendment guarantees any person accused of a crime the right to not take the witness stand in their own trial. If the defendant should chose to exercise that right the judge will remind the jury that not taking the stand is not an admission of guilt. However, often in the minds of jurors and spectators, this is an admission of guilt.

There are numerous reasons why a defendant would not like to testify. For one, if they have a previous conviction, they would not like that on the jurors' minds. If a client was to testify, and they had a prior conviction, the prosecutor would likely focus a lot of his attention on that during his cross examination. The questions about the prior conviction, although irrelevant to the case at hand, could potentially ruin a defendant's credibility. Often in cases, the defendant's credibility is what puts reasonable doubt into the jurors' minds.

Another reason why a client would choose not to take the stand would be if they are a weak public speaker. For example, if a defendant seemed incredibly nervous while testifying in his or her own case, they may seem guilty. Of course they are going to be nervous. Their life may be completely ruined if the outcome of the trial is unfavorable. They are going to be nervous, it's inevitable. But in the minds of most people a nervous defendant is a guilty defendant. That is completely false. So in order to avoid making a bad impression on the witness stand, a defendant may choose to exercise their fifth amendment right. If they do so, it's not an admission of guilt, its a strategic move to ensure that the jury remains unbiased.