People who fight criminal charges at jury trials in California have the right to choose whether or not to testify. If they do not, the juries will be instructed that they cannot use their silence as evidence against them to infer their guilt. While defendants have the right to testify, it does not mean that doing so is a wise choice, however.
Presumption of innocence
When people choose to fight their charges, they are presumed to be innocent until and unless the prosecutor meets the burden of proof to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors might try to meet their burden by calling witnesses to testify about what happened. Defendants do not have the burden of proof to prove their innocence. Instead, the burden is always on the prosecutor to prove the defendant’s guilt. In many cases, a good defense can mean carefully cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses to discredit the state’s case, the investigation by the police, the motivation of the accuser, and call into question any inconsistencies in the testimony and evidence.
Why testifying can be bad for the defense
When people take the stand in their own defense, many things can go wrong. If the defendant has any past bad acts, they could be introduced by the prosecutor as evidence if the defendant testifies. Prior bad acts can be introduced so that the jury can infer that the defendant likely committed the current offense. Prosecutors are also trained to cross-examine defendants in such a way as to make them angry so that the jury members can see them lose control on the stand. Defendants who maintain their calm while on the stand might come across to the jury as emotionless, cold, and aloof, potentially harming their criminal defense cases. In either situation, the jury might take these emotional indicators as evidence that the defendant is guilty even if he or she is not.
While defendants have the right to choose whether or not to take the stand, it is seldom a good idea. People who are considering doing so might want to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before making the decision.