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Should Criminal Defendants Show Remorse?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 19, 2015 10:12 AM

The Boston Marathon bomber was sentenced to death last week, and much was made of his reaction (or lack thereof) to the verdict:

That was one of many reactions to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's demeanor during and after the verdict. Which makes you wonder what people were expecting to see. Did they want to see him show remorse? And when does showing remorse matter, legally speaking?

Catch-22

The reason many criminal defendants don't show remorse is because they have pleaded not guilty to the charges. You can't really say "I'm sorry for doing it" at the same time you're saying "I didn't do it." So it's hard to expect a defendant to show remorse during the trial.

Even if he or she is found guilty, it may not be the smartest thing to express remorse during sentencing. After all, there are still appeals available in most cases. Showing regret for one's crimes, even in an attempt to get a shorter sentence, could foreclose many challenges to the guilty verdict itself.

Caught In the Act

Tsarnaev's case was unique -- after all, his defense team admitted his culpability for the crime, saying in their opening statement: "It was him." So he didn't have the same concerns as a defendant pleading not guilty. In fact, since most of his legal strategy was set up to avoid the death penalty, it might have been a smart play.

One of the aggravating factors the jury in his case was asked to consider was whether he "demonstrated a lack of remorse." And the jury unanimously found that he did.

State sentencing laws can vary on whether remorse can be a mitigating factor in criminal sentencing. And in many cases, sentencing is left to a judge's discretion, so he or she can choose whether or not to consider a defendant's remorse. So while it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to show remorse before you're found guilty, showing it after may minimize the penalties.

No one should be trying to figure out for themselves whether it's a good idea to show remorse to the court or a jury. If you've been charged with a crime, exercise your constitutional right to counsel, and contact a criminal law attorney right away.

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