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To many criminal defendants, taking the stand to defend themselves seems like a righteous and principled choice.
That may have been Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's reasoning last week, when the man better known as Osama bin Laden's son-in-law took the stand during his terrorism trial. However, other high-profile defendants like George Zimmerman have opted not to testify at trial.
Should you be convinced to take the stand in your own defense?
Support for Taking the Stand
As Ghaith might have felt as he took the stand last Wednesday, there is a certain sense of respect or earnestness that comes with directly voicing your own defense. In fact, one defense attorney told the Portland Press Herald that juries often want to hear from defendants, and testifying "can go a long ways toward convincing a jury of their innocence."
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant the right to take the stand and the right to refuse to testify. Many defendants exercise their right to tell jurors what happened in their own words, offering emotional and factual details that could otherwise be lost.
Reasons Not to Take the Stand
Because it is a constitutional right, attorneys often cannot prevent their clients from testifying, even if it is a terrible idea. In some cases, even if a defense attorney is certain his client is very likely going to lie on the stand, the attorney may be ethically bound to allow the defendant to testify.
Keep in mind, though, that in many criminal cases, it is neither advisable nor necessary for a defendant to take the stand because the prosecution has the burden of proof. Criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty and are not even required to present a speck of evidence in their defense -- much less to testify.
When defendants do take the stand, it is a potential invitation for prosecutors to rip them to pieces during cross-examination. Even the most composed persons can become angry, blustering, guilty-looking buffoons when grilled by a skilled prosecutor.
An equally skilled criminal defense attorney can advise you whether you should take the stand in your own criminal case -- advice that shouldn't be ignored.