Most people charged with a crime settle things in a plea bargain. When things aren’t settled this way, they go to trial. While most people go through their trials alone, the judge may sometimes arrange for a joint trial, where defendants who are facing charges stemming from the same set of circumstances will be tried together. This can save court resources and make it easier for witnesses, but there are also downsides to joint trials, which is why defense lawyers sometimes petition for the trials to be severed apart.
What is a Joint Trial?
A joint trial, also called a joinder, is one where the judge has ordered multiple defendants to attend court together because their cases involve a similar set of circumstances. In most cases, this will only happen when the prosecution has charged the defendants together. A joint trial can save court resources by requiring only one jury selection process and make things easier on witnesses who will only need to testify once.
Joinders are can only be ordered if it will not violate any of the defendant’s right to a fair trial. For example, if the defendants either blame one another or attack the credibility of one another, then they shouldn’t be in a joint trial.
The Defendants Don’t Need to Face the Same Charges
One common misconception about joint trials is that the defendants need to face the same charges to be tried together. In reality though, the defendants need to only be involved in the same circumstances to be tried together, though usually they will at least face some of the same charges.
So, for example, if two friends conspired to murder someone together, one person actually committed the murder and they both hid the body, then they would both face conspiracy charges and while the person who committed killed the victim would face murder charges, the other person would face charges related to aiding and abetting murder.
Along the same lines, the jury may hear the evidence against both defendants at the same time, but they will evaluate each charge for each individually. In the example above, this would mean that they found the person accused of murder guilty of all charges while the accomplice could be found innocent of all charges.
Even a death penalty trial does not automatically require severance, but the judge should be particularly careful in evaluation of a joinder motion given the ultimate penalty. Generally a judge has wide discretion in granting joinder or severance. The judge should weigh the efficiency of one trial versus any unfair prejudice to two defendants given the particular evidence of the case or the conflicting positions of the defendants.
That being said, the defendant can always request for a trial to be severed if they believe it will jeopardize their right to a fair trial. If this request is denied and the defendant is found guilty, it may provide grounds for appeal if she believes this is the reason she lost her case.
What About the Evidence?
Evidence rules can often become very complex in these cases as a piece of evidence that can be used against one defendant may not be applicable to another’s case, but could still bias the jury against him. While the judge may instruct the jury to only consider a piece of evidence as it applies to one defendant, sometimes this is an insufficient when it comes to protecting a defendant’s right to a fair trial and may require the trial to be severed.
In the case above, for example, if the prosecution claims to have evidence that the murderer sexually assaulted the victim before disposing of the body and the co-defendant did not plot this part of the murder with him, the ugly nature of this crime and the evidence related to it could bias jurors against the co-defendant. The judge should sever the trial in this case.
Do Defendants in a Joint Trial Need to Have the Same Lawyer?
Although not prohibited, it is rarely wise for the same lawyer to represent two defendants in a trial. Defendants are often placed in conflicting positions at trial and it is not a required basis for severance. Additionally, one defendant may be more culpable than another and it puts the lawyer in an unethical position of favoring one client’s defense over another. Even if the defendants start the trial with the same strategy, their positions often change based on the evidence.
The court can sanitize statements introduced by the prosecution against one defendant so the other defendant is not mentioned in the statement. If the one defendant testifies, the other defendant’s lawyer can cross examine the first defendant to protect his client’s rights.
If you have been accused of a crime and believe you may be given a joint trial, please call Peter Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.