Plea Bargains vs. Going to Trial: Weighing the Options in Your El Paso Case

By Brock Benjamin
Founding Attorney

When facing criminal charges in El Paso, you generally have two options: accepting a plea bargain or proceeding to trial. Only around five percent of criminal cases in the United States ever reach trial, with federal charges reflecting a staggering two percent trial rate. It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of criminal cases never reach a judge and jury and are resolved by plea bargain. However, each option brings its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and it is critical to make an informed decision in light of your unique circumstances, needs, and goals. The risks of trial are high, but so are the benefits if you win.

There’s no right or wrong answer for each individual client, and many variables to consider, so when deciding whether to take a plea bargain or go to trial, the guidance of a skilled and seasoned criminal defense attorney can be invaluable. The Benjamin Law Firm can help you determine the strength of your case, negotiate for the best possible plea deal, and help you understand which option is the best strategic move.

Brock Benjamin has over 100 cases to a jury, to include acquittals on misdemeanor possession of marijuana, federal misdemeanor assault, federal felony assault, federal possession with intent to distribute, and state murder charges. Several convictions in the mix as well. But trial is not something to be feared, just understood.

Understanding Plea Bargains

A plea bargain occurs when a defendant and the prosecution agree, through negotiations, to plead guilty or no contest to a charge in exchange for an agreement not to take the charges to trial. Prosecutors are generally willing to offer plea bargains to save the government the time and money associated with taking a case to trial, so they are often willing to reduce the charges or agree to a lighter sentence to incentivize the defendant to accept the plea offer. Plea bargains, above all, save both sides the stress and uncertainty of trial, making a plea bargain a favorable choice in many situations.

In rare cases, a defendant can accept a plea without admitting guilt, which is known as an “Alford Plea.” In essence, the defendant does not admit to the criminal act and maintains their innocence but accepts, through a thorough review of the prosecution’s evidence, that there is sufficient evidence to secure a conviction at trial. Texas allows Alford Pleas, but they are far from common. 

Plea Bargains: The Pros and Cons

The benefits of agreeing to a plea bargain include:

  1. Reduced Charges: Often, prosecutors are willing to reduce the charge against a defendant in exchange for a plea bargain, saving the defendant from a higher charge on their criminal record and the associated consequences. For example, a felony charge could be reduced to a misdemeanor, sparing the defendant from the life-long consequences of a felony conviction.  
  1. Lighter Sentence: When the charges aren’t reduced, the prosecutors may be willing to offer a plea deal that carries a lighter sentence than what could be imposed at trial, including reduced fines, probation instead of jail time, a shorter prison sentence, or agreeing not to pursue the death penalty. 
  1. Certainty: There are no guarantees for either party at trial, and judges have a lot of discretion when it comes to sentencing. Once a case is in the hands of a jury, just about anything can happen. While a not guilty verdict is possible, so is a sentence double or triple what the prosecution is offering in their plea offer. A plea bargain provides a concrete resolution for your case with a clearer understanding of the associated consequences. 
  1. Expediency: The criminal justice process moved painfully slowly before the pandemic, and many judges are still sifting through the aftermath of the COVID-19 backlog. Beyond that, preparing a plea bargain takes a lot less of your attorney’s and the prosecution’s time than compiling a comprehensive case for trial. It can be months, even years before your case ever reaches a judge, and when it does, it could take weeks to resolve. Without a plea bargain, there’s no telling when you can put these charges behind you and begin the next chapter of your life.

While there are many benefits to a plea bargain, there are distinct drawbacks:

  1. Admission of Guilt: By agreeing to a plea bargain, unless in a rare Alford plea, you’re admitting guilt to the charges against you and you will have the charges on your criminal record. While expunction, or removing the charges from your record, may be an option down the line, this record could also follow you long after your sentence has been served – even for a lifetime. A criminal record can carry long-term consequences including limited access to housing, diminished employment opportunities, and the like.
  1. Limited Legal Recourse: By accepting a plea bargain, you’re waiving your constitutional right to a trial, and have very limited options for an appeal. This means that if new evidence emerges that could exonerate you, you likely won’t be able to pursue further legal action. 

The Pros and Cons of Trial

Going to trial involves presenting your case before a judge or a judge and jury, who will determine whether or not there’s sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict. A trial offers certain advantages, including:

  1. Utilizing the Presumption of Innocence: At trial, you are, by law, presumed innocent until you are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This high burden of proof is placed on the prosecution, and they must make a compelling case that there is zero reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. Conversely, an effective defense doesn’t mean you need to prove that you’re not guilty. You merely need to show that the prosecution doesn’t have enough evidence and that there is reasonable doubt as to your guilt.
  1. Presenting a Defense: Going to trial allows you to exercise your constitutional right to confront your accusers. Your attorney will be able to challenge the prosecution’s evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and bring forward evidence and witnesses that corroborate your side of the story. This can be an effective strategy if you have a strong case demonstrating your innocence or if the prosecution’s case is weak. While you have the right to testify and tell your side of the story at trial, that is almost never advisable, and it’s vital to consult an experienced Texas criminal defense attorney before you consider doing so.
  1. Avenues for Appeal: Unlike a plea bargain, if you are convicted at trial, you have the right to appeal the verdict on various grounds and ask that your case be reviewed by a higher court. This is a critical opportunity to challenge the result of your case and seek a more favorable outcome.

However, there are distinct downsides associated with taking a case to trial, including:

  1. Uncertainty: Unlike a plea bargain, there’s never any way to know how a trial will resolve, especially once the evidence is in the hands of a jury. While you may receive a not guilty verdict, you could also see a guilty verdict with the potential for a much broader range of sentencing options, almost always more severe than what was offered in a plea bargain. 
  1. Time and Expense: Trials are incredibly time-consuming, between extensive preparation, pre-trial hearings, discovery, jury selection, the trial itself, the verdict, and the sentencing – which is often scheduled at a later date. You may be waiting months, even years before your sentence is handed down. Moreover, taking your case to trial is undoubtedly more expensive than a plea bargain. Contrary to popular belief, your right to an attorney doesn’t mean the right to a public defender. You need to financially qualify as indigent to receive free or partially subsidized representation, and many people do not meet that threshold. Your attorney will need to dedicate a considerable amount of time to your case to present an effective defense, which, even with reasonable rates, adds up. Moreover, if you can’t work while awaiting trial, you’ll be experiencing further financial hardships.
  1. Stress and Publicity: The uncertainty and significant waiting time associated with taking your case to trial can take a significant toll on your overall well-being, making it difficult to put this chapter of your life behind you and move forward. Trials are also public proceedings, meaning that your case will almost always become a matter of public record, and may receive media attention, which can be emotionally challenging and can irreparably damage your reputation even if you’re later found not guilty.

Jury vs. Bench Trial: Weighing Your Options in Criminal Defense

You have the constitutional right to a jury of your peers, but you can also waive your right to a jury and request a bench trial, where the judge alone will oversee the trial, deliberate, come to a verdict, and impose a sentence.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are both advantages and disadvantages to a bench trial. A bench trial generally takes emotion and prejudice out of the picture, where the verdict will reflect the facts and the law alone. This can be a positive or a negative, depending on your unique circumstances and the strength of your case.

However, one distinct advantage is that bench trials tend to be scheduled and resolved much faster than jury trials. The decision of whether to proceed with a jury or bench trial is vital, and an experienced El Paso criminal defense attorney can help you weigh your options in light of the strength of your case. 

El Paso Criminal Defense Attorney

It’s important to make an informed decision when deciding whether to accept a plea bargain or move forward to trial. This choice is very personal and largely depends on the specific circumstances of your case. It’s critical to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each option carefully, seeking out the guidance of an experienced El Paso criminal defense attorney. 

The Benjamin Law Firm stands ready to leverage our expertise, knowledge, and two decades of experience to ensure you reach the best possible outcome. Trust a pillar in the El Paso criminal defense attorney community, Brock Morgan Benjamin, who is one of few attorneys Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. That expertise, coupled with his experience as a former prosecutor, gives Attorney Benjamin a valuable edge whether you’re looking to negotiate a favorable plea bargain or present an aggressive defense at trial.

Contact us or call us at (915)-221-7462 today. ¡También podemos ayudarte en español!

About the Author
Brock Benjamin is board-certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  His practice is primarily state and federal criminal law and appeals.Brock 

Posted in: Criminal Defense