For example, if the evidence is overwhelmingly against them and the defendant knows they are guilty and there is no chance for a lesser sentence or a plea deal (happens in certain jurisdictions), is there still any merit to continuing with a trial?

3 Answers 3



Juries aren't terribly accurate. There is an irreducible chance that no matter how clear the outcome should be that the jury will get it wrong. Based upon a review of the academic literature on wrongful convictions and inaccurate acquittals, I generally tell my clients that this is about 10%. Many people think that this is a low end estimate.

Also, sometimes a jury will acquit a defendant in a case where they think that the defendant was actually legally guilty because of extraordinary circumstances, and so the jury will disregard the law and acquit. This practice is called "jury nullification."

And, as other answers have noted, sometimes the prosecution or the judicial system screws up for reasons that are unforeseeable, after a not guilty plea, in a way that makes proving your guilt difficult or impossible.

Basically, if you "roll the dice" there is some non-zero chance you will be acquitted, while if you plead guilty, there is none.

Also, sometimes court decisions will change the law in way favorable to you after the trial, and as long as your case is still on direct appeal from the conviction, you can benefit from those changes in the law, which you cannot if you simply plead guilty without any concessions.

Likewise, if you are innocent and the evidence is currently strongly against you, but you wish to preserve the ability to later attack the conviction based upon future newly discovered evidence, not pleading guilty is generally necessary to preserve that option.

Another circumstance where going to trial but losing can still be worth it, is where there are extenuating circumstances that make your conduct understandable, even if it is not a legally valid defense. Getting these facts in front of the judge in a fuller fashion, as a trial can make possible, can convince the judge that while you are legally guilty, that you deserve leniency.

Going to trial typically results in a longer sentence, even without a plea bargain, however, so going forward with a hopeless trial is rarely a good move.

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    what about jurisdictions where jury trials aren't a thing and judges are the sole deciders
    – user49663
    May 7, 2023 at 8:01
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    @OldAccount2005 Do you have one in mind? If we are talking civil law countries with an inquisitorial system, formal pleas and plea bargains aren't such a thing. You can still approach your defense in different ways but you don't get to choose whether there is a trial. (+1)
    – Relaxed
    May 7, 2023 at 10:44
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    I love your answer but another two I could think of was : 1. The recent "weather balloon" vs "spy ballon".. when the defence was "oh it's a weather balloon that happened to drift over military bases" a few of my friends asked what the point of even trying to defend it would be - then next day I spoke to my neighbour who said "well if they're so sure with an answer.. maybe they are telling the truth?". Sometimes people want to believe something even if given a rubbish excuse. 2. If highly politicised can argue you're being pursued through the courts maliciously and attract sympathy. May 7, 2023 at 17:39
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    @Matthew1471 It would be very usual for the "court of public opinion" to influence whether a criminal conviction occurs.
    – ohwilleke
    May 7, 2023 at 20:43
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    @Relaxed France has a guilty plea procedure since 2004. Not my wheelhouse, but I heard it is not super-popular (you don’t really get a discount of jail time or fine; all you spare is the expense and hassle of a full trial).
    – KFK
    May 10, 2023 at 16:18

The defendant cannot be sure that the evidence will leave the trier of fact (judge or jury) with no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. Thus, the defendant can only "know" they are guilty in the colloquial sense (in that they did the things that could be found to be a crime). However, they cannot know that they will be guilty in law. There is always a chance that the trier of fact is not convinced.

Ways that the prosecution's case can fall apart at trial:

  • what appeared to be convincing to the parties just isn't convincing to the trier of fact
  • a key witness or evidence becomes unavailable
  • it turns out critical evidence was obtained contrary to constitutional principles
  • a key witness's credibility or reliability crumbles on cross examination
  • the prosecution is complacent in diligently moving the trial forward and the trial drags on to the point that a stay of proceedings is warranted (e.g. in jurisdictions with strict rights to timely trials)

A person might simply desire to exercise their right to force the prosecution to prove their case. This can have important benefits to the accused's sense of dignity.

  • is it possible that a defendant doesn't know themselves if what they did is a crime or not due to unclear interpretation of a law ?
    – user49663
    May 6, 2023 at 21:41
  • @IndianLawDropout: In any sensible jurisdiction (that uses an adversarial system, at least), the judge will figure out what facts would or would not constitute a violation of the law before the trial begins. It would be wholly impractical for lawyers on either side to elicit testimony in support of their position when they don't know what facts they need to establish or cast doubt on in the first place.
    – Kevin
    May 7, 2023 at 3:18
  • then why are so many question of law trials conducted ? @Kevin
    – user49663
    May 7, 2023 at 3:33
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    @IndianLawDropout it is possible that the defendant does not remember the facts at all. If I recall correctly defendant Todd Bridges testified that at the time of the alleged murder he was high and he does not remember killing the victim - he simply does not know. That is one of the reasons it is the state's burden to prove the defendant guilty not the defendant's burden to prove innocence.
    – emory
    May 7, 2023 at 13:37
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    @Kevin The common law system isn't a sensible system of law in that case. The determination of whether an act violates the law is frequently impossible, even with perfect knowledge of the facts, because some things like what constitutes criminal negligence or recklessness are left to the good judgment of a jury (or the judge in bench trial). Even jury instructions are typically not finalized until all facts have been received to determine which ones are appropriate.
    – ohwilleke
    May 8, 2023 at 19:29

In the English legal system you get a small bonus for pleading guilty early. Since that might equate (in a murder trial) to less than a few months of additional jail time after a potential sentence of decades, it's often advantageous to go to trial and hope to win, despite the long odd of doing so, rather than pleading guilty.

Anecdote time. I saw a case in court a few months ago where the defendant had admitted during interview that he had stabbed someone in a bar fight, with the fight itself being captured on CCTV. The prosecution lost the interview recording in their computer system (along with the footage) and were relying on the interviewing officer and the victim to testify. When they failed to turn up, the CPS asked for a stay while their IT guys recovered the footage. As there had already been four delays the judge ended the trial and acquitted the defendant. The guiltiest man in history walked out of there a free man.

  • The discount on the sentence for a guilty plea "at first opportunity" is one third off, so unlikely to be "a few months .... after a potential sentence of decades". This does drop dramatically if you change the plea just before the start of the trial (or even during it). May 9, 2023 at 12:29
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    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica - "A late plea of guilty on the day of trial is likely to receive a maximum discount of one-twentieth (5%)."
    – Richard
    May 9, 2023 at 20:41

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