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When should a defendant choose not to testify?

When should a defendant in a choose not to testify on his or her own behalf?

It's a tough decision, faced at some point by every defendant who takes their case to trial. Some people feel that it's almost necessary for a defendant to take the stand because anybody who is innocent would naturally want to tell his or her story, right?

However, once you step into a courtroom, testifying can put you on shaky legal ground that could open you up to bigger problems than you're already facing.

For example, a New Jersey man recently invoked his right to remain silent in a trial before the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal in connection with a boating accident. The 76-year-old's yacht demolished a smaller fishing boat, killing its 81-year-old owner.

The New Jersey native is only charged with three offenses — improperly overtaking another vessel, improper navigation or failing to maintain a lookout and failing to take action and avoid a collision. Each offense carries a maximum fine of only $100. Given the circumstances, why wouldn't the yacht's owner simply plead guilty and pay the fines?

Perhaps because doing so could open him to personal liability from the fisherman's family or estate in a civil suit. He may also fear charges for manslaughter. Maybe he simply doesn't believe he's guilty.

There are also some other good reasons to refuse to testify:

-- You're innocent until proven guilty. Saying nothing can't hurt you, but saying the wrong thing could absolutely help the opposition.

-- Testifying opens you up to cross-examination. You don't get to tell your side of the story and then leave the stand. Instead, you have to answer any number of questions that the opposition has for you, and you cannot pick and choose what to answer.

-- You may just not make a good impression on the stand. Juries are human, and a defendant that comes across as angry, arrogant, cold or callous could sway a jury into a guilty verdict. You may be none of those things, but you could appear that way if your nerves cause you to freeze up or a prosecutor's questions make you boil over with anger.

Before you take the stand in court, consult with an attorney and listen carefully to his or her opinion. While the decision is ultimately yours, your attorney will likely have some sound advice.

Source: The Washington Times, "Man charged in fatal boat crash remains silent," Associated Press, Feb. 07, 2017

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