Remorse by Criminal Defendants After Trial
Understanding Remorse in the Criminal Justice System
The topics of remorse and acceptance of responsibility by criminal defendants comes up often after trial and at the time of sentencing. Defendants who elect to admit guilt accept responsibility for their actions, and often deliver apologies to those adversely impacted by their crimes at sentencing.
For defendants who elect to proceed to trial and are found guilty, the issues of remorse and acceptance of responsibility pose greater challenges, both morally and legally.
A Case Study in Remorse and Sentencing
I recently had occasion to participate in a sentencing hearing for a criminal defendant who was found guilty after trial. The man was accused of assault and claimed that his conduct was justified by self-defense. At trial, the man testified in his own defense and the judge instructed the jury on the law of self-defense. Notwithstanding these occurrences, the jury still found the man guilty of assaulting his victims.
At sentencing, the Court commented that the defendant had not fully accepted responsibility for his actions before imposing punishment, and then dispensed a prison sentence that will incarcerate the man for several years. This chain of events stuck with me and motivated the authorship of this article.
The Dynamics of Trial and Remorse
When two parties proceed to trial in a court of law, it is because they cannot reach a settlement or meeting of the minds about how their dispute should resolve. In a criminal case, this is where the defendant maintains his innocence and exercises the constitutional right to a trial. When any case proceeds to trial, there can only be one winner (assuming the trial does not end with a hung jury unable to reach a unanimous verdict) and one loser.
The losing party never leaves the courthouse happy. If the prosecution loses, it will believe the jury reached an unjust result and the victims of crime denied justice. Similarly, a defendant who is convicted after trial will experience the same sentiment, feeling as though the jury got it wrong in reaching their verdict.
The Complexities of Remorse Post-Trial
The minds, perspectives, and opinions of the losing party remain unchanged immediately after a trial, regardless of verdict. Therefore, from a moral perspective, it is not reasonable to expect the loser – especially a criminal defendant – to show remorse and accept responsibility. If the defendant is acquitted, the law does not call upon the accuser to apologize for making the accusation that prompted criminal charges and the eventual trial.
How dare anyone in society call the proclaimed victim of a crime a liar, following an acquittal. Similarly, the law should not call upon or expect the defendant to express remorse or acceptance of responsibility for a crime that he claims he did not commit, at least not at the time of sentencing.
Afterall, though we figuratively refer to trial as the truth-seeking process, it is realistically more of a contest to see what version of events a factfinder choses to believe, all the while the real truth remains both unknown and elusive to anyone other than the person accused and the person(s) making the accusations, at least with respect to victim-based offenses.
Legal Implications of Expressing Remorse
For those defendants who decide to deliver an apology or statement of accepting responsibility at trial, beware the legal implications of doing so. Any defendant convicted after trial maintains the right to an appeal. Depending upon the success on appeal, a new trial may be awarded.
At sentencing, the 5th Amendment right to remain silent and the privilege against self-incrimination remain alive and well. This means that anything a defendant says at sentencing could foreseeably be used as evidence against him or her at a future proceeding.
Perhaps this is another reason – aside from the moral conflict described above – for Courts, after a guilty verdict, to not expect criminal defendants to apologize or accept responsibility at sentencing. Nor should Courts penalize legally wise defendants who choose not to do so.
Seeking Legal Advice in Criminal Cases
If you have been charged with a crime and have questions about whether you should apologize, express remorse, or make a statement accepting criminal responsibility at the time of your sentencing hearing, contact the Criminal Defense Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. at 401-351-5100 for a free consultation.