Section 22-3217 lays out the pretrial conference procedures. These conferences are conducted between both parties and the judge. In these meetings, any major concerns of the upcoming trial will be addressed and handled accordingly. Experienced counsel will utilize a pretrial conference to both produce a favorable stance going into trial and ascertain how the judge is likely to conduct the trial.
Timing of a Pretrial Conference
Pretrial conferences occur after the filing of the indictment or of an information. Generally, every trial will conduct a final meeting a few days before the trial is set to commence. The goal is to gain perceptions on what is likely to happen during the trial, therefore the timing should be as close as possible to the trial start date as possible. Judges have a never-ending case load and are always busy. Thus, a lawyer can gain credibility and favor with the court by eagerly working with opposing counsel to attempt to make the trial go as quickly and efficiently as possible. Neither side should put efficiency ahead of their case, but in reality, a trial just boils down to a few disputed facts which then should be the focus of the trial rather than unrelated issues. If a pretrial conference is held prematurely, theses specific issues may not be fully known and thus will not be completely prepared for by either side.
Purpose of a Pretrial Conference
The pretrial conference allows the attorneys and the judge to be proactive towards the scheduled trial. All of the details of the trial will be decided, including the jury selection process, the length of the trial, and any unusual procedures or requests. Attorneys will also be able to present possible concerns to the court. These concerns can include evidentiary problems with testimony or exhibits the other side will attempt to introduce. If these concerns were known earlier on, a motion in limine could be used to address them. If they are not known early on, they will be addressed during a pretrial conference where the judge will hear arguments from both sides and then make a reasonable, informed decision then rather than during trial.
One benefit of addressing these concerns during the pretrial conferences is being able to compel the prosecuting attorney into agreements. The district attorney feels relatively little pressure to consent to even the most reasonable discovery request. However, the court has great authority in how the trial will proceed. Thus, a prosecuting attorney who declines reasonable inquiries or accommodations regarding evidence may be forced to abide by those terms during a pretrial conference. This happened in State v. Coleman, where the court prohibited a witness from testifying because it had been agreed during the pretrial conference that said witness would not be called during trial. The Kansas Supreme Court found that the court has the authority to bind the parties to that agreement, even if the prosecuting attorney wanted to change its mind during trial. This authority also allows the judge to implement suitable discipline if it is found there was unnecessary delay or bad-faith refusals regarding discovery requests or evidentiary conflicts.
A defendant can enter into a plea bargain with the state at any time prior to the jury returning with a verdict. A plea bargain is the defendant agreeing to accept discipline for a crime. Usually this is done in exchange for a lesser crime or reduced discipline. The defendant can either plead guilty, thus fully admitting to the charges, or no contest (nolo contendere), thus accepting the conviction and punishment but reserving an admission of guilt. Each plea has its own attributes, an example is how the conviction can be used against a defendant in a later legal action. The risks associated with each plea is best discussed in the circumstances of each case’s particular facts and issues.
It is beneficial to plea bargain at the pretrial conference. At that point, all the evidence that is admissible or inadmissible at trial is known by the parties. Therefore, the district attorney will have a good idea of what obstacles they face in proving the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, the demeanor and perspective of the judge are also known, which can implicate how they will rule of crucial issues. All this considered makes the pretrial conference a great occasion to create a compelling plea bargain.
The court still has to approve any plea deal agreed to by the district attorney and the defendant. This is to ensure the defendant knows what rights they are giving up by entering into the plea deal. Those rights being given up are: right to a jury trial, right to have the state prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt, right to confront their accusers, etc. The court strives to ensure that the defendant’s decision is an informed decision which encompasses knowing what rights are being lost in the bargain. The plea will be approved and thus the case will not go to trial if the court is persuaded that the defendant has had sufficient information given to them, including having effective legal counsel.