In Coleman v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held that a preliminary hearing is a “critical stage” at which defendants are entitled to have an attorney present. The Court discussed several reasons why having counsel at the preliminary hearing is essential to protect a defendant’s rights.
The first and arguably most important reason for having a lawyer at the preliminary hearing is that the lawyer gets to ask the Commonwealth’s witnesses questions on cross-examination. Through skilled cross-examination a lawyer can expose the weaknesses of the Commonwealth’s case and potentially convince the magistrate to dismiss the charges rather than bind the case over to court.
Second, a lawyer can create a record at the preliminary hearing that could be later used to impeach the Commonwealth’s witnesses at trial or to preserve testimony that is favorable to the defendant. By asking the witnesses questions on the record at the preliminary hearing, the lawyer will then know what the witness is likely to say at trial. If the witness changes their story when they testify at trial, then the lawyer will be able to undermine the witness’s credibility by pointing out that the witness has given inconsistent statements. Testimony that is favorable to the defendant will also be in the transcript of the preliminary hearing, and may be referred to at trial as well.
Third, a lawyer can learn valuable information about the Commonwealth’s case against his client which allows the lawyer to more effectively prepare for trial. Based on the evidence presented by the prosecutor at the preliminary hearing, the defendant’s lawyer may be able to determine the Commonwealth’s strategy or theory of the case and therefore know how best to prepare.
Clearly, the preliminary hearing is an important step in the legal process, and it is crucial to have an experienced criminal defense attorney present to protect your rights.
If you are facing criminal charges, please contact The Masorti Law Group at (814) 234-9500.