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5 Reasons Defendants Choose Not to Testify

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

George Zimmerman made headlines Wednesday by choosing not to testify at his murder trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The 29-year-old defendant informed Judge Debra Nelson that he wouldn't be testifying after "consulting with counsel," reports Reuters.

Zimmerman's defense team has plenty of strategic and legal reasons for advising their client not to testify. Here are five reasons defendants choose to go this route:

1. The Burden of Proof Rests With Prosecutors.

The prosecution has to prove that any defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If they fail to do this, a defendant doesn't need to prove anything.

Even in cases of alleged self-defense, like the Zimmerman case, a defendant may not present any evidence of self-defense. Yet the jury may rightly infer self-defense from evidence presented by the prosecution.

2. Right Against Self-Incrimination.

Aside from the burden of evidence, defendants are entitled not to testify in their own defense to preserve their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

But when a defendant voluntarily takes the stand, he waives the right to "plead the Fifth," and he will be compelled to answer the prosecution's questions as well as his own attorney's.

3. Cross-Examination Is Brutal.

Once the defendant takes the stand, his defense attorney will ask questions that allow him to explain his story in a way that is most favorable to his case.

However, when the prosecution gets a crack at the defendant during cross-examination, even the most sympathetic and credible defendant can become a seething cauldron of rage or an unbelievable mess.

4. Other Witnesses Can Testify.

Because of the risk of a defendant being discredited or vilified on the stand, it is often much more prudent to let other witnesses do the heavy lifting in a defendant's case.

Defense witnesses can also testify about a defendant's actions and even their perception of his state of mind without violating the rule against hearsay evidence.

5. Defendant Doesn't Want To.

This may not necessarily have to do with legal strategy or credibility; a defendant may simply be emotionally uncomfortable with testifying.

Attorneys may attempt to convince their clients to testify, but lawyers are ethically bound to respect their clients' wishes with respect to their defense. Ultimately, defendants who choose not to take the stand base their decisions on mix of emotional, legal, and strategic considerations.

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