One of the most frustrating things that happens to me is when I receive a phone call from someone who pled guilty to a crime that they didn't do. Recently, a young woman called me and said that she was arrested for a misdemeanor. She claimed that the arresting officer was very sympathetic when he arrested her and said that the "DA would probably just throw it out." This was followed by several assurances that it "wasn't that serious". She told me that when she appeared in court, she was alone. She didn't have a lawyer and said that the judge asked her questions about the case and kept telling her to plead guilty and that if she didn't plead guilty, he would hold her in jail by setting bail. A criminal court judge has discretion to set bail in almost any criminal case. In other words, the judge isn't going to get in trouble for setting bail. Threatening to set bail can scare you into pleading guiltily because you are essentially given a choice of pleading guiltily or being locked up. So, with the threat of being jailed looming, she plead guilty. Over the years that followed, she was unable to get a permanent job because every employer saw that she had a criminal conviction on her record. She called me to see if she could change her mind and undo the guilty plea. Unfortunately, I had to give her the bad news that she would have to fight a lengthy and uncertain appeal. What makes this bad news is that criminal appeals are denied all the time. Her best chance to have avoided conviction would have been to have not pled guilty. The only person who could have prepared her for the arraignment, informed her of the options, fought to get her released without bail, and enforce her rights would have been a lawyer, but she was alone.
A woman named Mary Stuart was charged with treason, a serious felony, and she went to court alone. When she appeared before the judge, she explained that she didn't know the law, didn't know what she was entitled to and wasn't trained to advocate in court. In short, she asked for a lawyer but this request was denied. She was later convicted and executed by decapitation. This was the 1586 trial of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. This was typical in those days because the judges would want people to show up and try to defend themselves in their own words. They knew from experience that this would often result in people admitting their guilt or otherwise failing to defend themselves. The framers of the US constitution found trials like hers to be deplorable. According the the framers, the right to counsel became a necessary element of a modern criminal justice system. Under the Sixth Amendment, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." This grants you the right to an attorney from the moment you are taken into police custody. This was once of the greatest legal achievements in history and a right that you should never treat lightly. For this reason, never go to criminal court alone.