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I understand that when a defendant is charged with one or more crimes, one of the following outcomes almost always occurs in practice: either

1 . They plead not guilty to all charges and go to trial, or

2a. They plead guilty to all charges and bypass the trial, or

2b. They plead guilty to some charges, the prosecution agrees to drop the other charges, and they bypass the trial.

A. Is it procedurally possible for the defendant to plead guilty to all charges but still insist on going to trial anyway (e.g. if the defendant believes that the judge will impose a sentence that is fairer than any that the prosecution would agree to)? If so, does this ever actually happen?

B. Suppose that the prosecution files multiple charges, and the defendant is willing to admit guilt to some charges but not to others, but the prosecution is unwilling to settle without a conviction for certain charges for which the defendant maintains innocence. Is it procedurally possible for the defendant to plead guilty to some charges but not guilty to other charges in a trial? If so, does this ever happen?

C. If it is procedurally possible for the defendant to plead guilty to certain charges during a trial, does the jury render a verdict on those charges? Is the jury allowed to find the defendant not guilty, against the defendant's own plea? If so, does this ever happen?

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    A related note with perhaps some technical relevance with respect to going to trial while intending to plead guilty: Many years ago I enjoyed a Readers Digest story where someone was tried for assault after taking the law into their own hands in response to slander. Their plea was "not guilty" but during trial, they immediately change their plea to "guilty". The strategy was to then use the plea of mitigation to effectively slander the victim back in open court. After the case, the victim complains: "You can't say those things about me and get away with it!" The response: "Why not? You did!" Aug 22, 2023 at 10:35
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    I think your point B always happens when things go to trial. The prosecution typically wants to charge the defendant with a certain crime C1, and has some evidence E to back their accusation; the defendant will then find out the least-severe crime C2 that matches evidence E, and plead guilty of crime C2 instead of crime C1.
    – Stef
    Aug 22, 2023 at 15:57

2 Answers 2

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A. Is it procedurally possible for the defendant to plead guilty to all charges but still insist on going to trial anyway (e.g. if the defendant believes that the judge will deliver a sentence that is fairer than any that the prosecution would agree to)? If so, does this ever actually happen?

This doesn't happen. Generally, it is not procedurally possible. There could be a contested sentencing hearing at which evidence is taken, however.

B. Suppose that the prosecution files multiple multiple charges, and the defendant is willing to admit guilt to some charge but not to others, but the prosecution is unwilling to settle without a conviction for certain charges for which the defendant maintains innocence. Is it procedurally possible for the defendant to plead guilty to some charges but not guilty to other charges in a trial? I so, does this ever happen?

This can happen and does happen from time to time with some regularity. The vast majority of the time, the plea of guilty happens before the trial, not in the trial itself.

C. If it is procedurally possible for the defendant to plead guilty to certain charges during a trial, does the jury render a verdict on those charges? Is the jury allowed to find the defendant not guilty, against the defendant's own plea? If so, does this ever happen?

If a defendant pleads guilty to certain charges before or during a trial, those charges aren't given to the jury when the jury is instructed immediately before deliberating. The jury isn't given a chance to consider charges to which there has been a guilty plea prior to the jury being instructed and sent to deliberate.

I don't know what happens if a defendant tries to plead guilty to some but not all charges after the jury has started to deliberate. I suspect that the jury's verdict on those charges would not be received when deliberations are concluded and the jury announces that it has a verdict, but I have never seen legal authority directly on point regarding that scenario, which almost never happens.

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  • If I understand correctly, you are saying that in circumstances where the defendant is willing to admit guilt for some charges but not for others, the most common (but not universal) course of action is that the defendant and prosecution make a partial plea deal for any charges for which the defendant is willing to admit guilt, but the defendant goes to trial only for the charges for which he/she insists on pleading innocent. Is my understanding correct? Are these hybrid "partial plea deals and partial trials" a common outcome? Aug 22, 2023 at 3:14
  • And also, I understand you to mean that a trial can't start with a guilty plea for any of the charges being considered within that trial, but the defendant can (and, very rarely, does) change their plea from innocent to guilty during the trial? In those rare cases, is it just up to the judge to determine the sentence, or can the prosecution and defendant reenter into plea negotiations after the trial has started? Aug 22, 2023 at 3:37
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    @VeryTinyBrain "Is my understanding correct?" Yes. "Are these hybrid "partial plea deals and partial trials" a common outcome?" They aren't a majority of case by any means but they aren't uncommon. "is it just up to the judge to determine the sentence" The judge always determines the sentence, even if there is a plea deal (but see Texas and Courts-Martial which have "jury" sentencing, the answer above does not apply to Texas and I'm not that familiar with how Texas works in this context). Plea deals involve charges and recommendations as to sentencing, but not the sentence itself.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 22, 2023 at 16:07
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It is very common for an accused to plead guilty but still contest the sentencing. By pleading guilty, the accused is consenting to the conviction without a trial. See R. v. Richard, [1996] 3 SCR 525, at para 21.

However, the conviction does not determine the sentence. It is common for there to be a contested sentencing hearing: for arguments about what a fit sentence would be, as well as evidence to establish mitigating or aggravating facts that were not admitted. See R. v. Gardiner, [1982] 2 S.C.R. 368.

Pleas are specific to each charge. The accused need not plead identically on each of the charges. See e.g. R. v. Aziz, 2023 ONSC 3999, at para 33:

At the outset of trial, the defence applied to sever the counts involving B and C from the indictment, and to proceed to trial only on the count involving A. Mr. Aziz indicated he would be entering a plea of guilty to the counts involving B and C, but would plead not guilty to sexually assaulting A.

If a plea is accepted by the court, a conviction is entered. No jury is assembled for a charge to which an accused pleads guilty.

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    Gotcha, thanks. I knew that defendants could plead guilty to some charges but innocent to others, but I didn't realize that the charges could be "split up" and only have some of them go to trial at all. I'd assumed that you either have to go to trial for all filed charges or for none of them. Thanks for clearing up my misconception. Aug 22, 2023 at 3:19
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    @VeryTinyBrain Technically "not guilty" instead of "innocent". The question before the court is "Do we have enough evidence to find them guilty?" Insufficient evidence also results in "not guilty", even if they did actually commit the crime in question.
    – CJ Dennis
    Aug 23, 2023 at 2:32

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