How Can You Defend Criminals?
I had just started my private practice and volunteered as a courthouse tour guide, giving grade students a tour of the courthouse which included a short Q & A with a judge. After the tour we (the attorneys) decided to introduce ourselves and describe what areas of the law we practiced. It was then that an innocent looking girl asked me, “How can you defend criminals? Isn’t it wrong to defend people you know are guilty?”
The question threw me off, to say the least. And coming from a kid I wasn’t prepared to answer her with a simple explanation. Actually, I didn’t have an explanation. I realized that I couldn’t start off with dissertation on the Bill of Rights and “presumed innocent” until proven guilty. Not because it wasn’t relevant, but because I believed the girl’s question struck a chord at a deeper level. I could tell that she was fundamentally challenging my moral judgment of representing, and trying to get a not guilty from people who have committed a crime.
I think I did end up mumbling something about the U.S. Constitution and the presumption of innocence, but I knew the girl saw right through me. Thank goodness the bailiff came to my rescue and distracted the kids on something else.
But the question really bothered me. How do you answer that? Why am I defending people who have committed a crime and why am I trying to “game the system” to avoid criminals from their responsibility?
Some months passed since that tour and I was representing a court appointed (pro bono) client who was charged with a probation violation. We really didn’t have a defense. The client failed to report his change of address to the probation officer and failed to follow up on a treatment program. It wasn’t like he went out and committed another crime or anything, but he failed to abide by the terms of the probation and he had to face the consequences. After hearing the probation officer’s case and my side of the story, the judge sentenced my client to 10 days in jail out of 60 days that was previously suspended.
It wasn’t a great result, but it wasn’t bad either. I think the judge sentenced my client to a short jail time because we presented evidence of client’s sincere attempts to rehabilitate himself (getting a job, staying clean, being a good father). Afterwards, both the client and his mother thanked me and said that despite the end result they knew that I did my best.
It was then that the realization of what I had done hit me. My client wasn’t necessarily looking for an attorney to “game the system” and avoid any penalty. Sure, if I found a technical defense that could have helped my client avoid jail time that would have been great. However, my client was mostly concerned that I do whatever I can to protect him; that I would exercise due diligence to comb through the facts of the case and be his zealous advocate; that despite the facts pointing towards guilty, I would still stand by him and argue on his behalf.
Because that’s what attorneys do. Despite all the evidence against you, despite the rest of the world thinking you are a bad person who should be jailed, an attorney will stand by your side and fight on your behalf. And while there are those who commit horrendous crimes, most of the crimes committed and processed through the courts are simple misdemeanors involving petit theft, small marijuana possession, drunk or reckless driving. And the ones who commit these crimes are not the career criminals we imagine but our friends, relatives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and even our parents and grandparents.
So when someone now asks me why I defend criminals, I answer that I defend your friends, relatives, siblings, or parents who have gotten themselves in a jam. That most people don’t knows what to do when they are charged with a crime that can leave lasting scars on their record. And that while I may not be able to guarantee a “not guilty” verdict every time, I will be standing by their side and advocating on their behalf through the end.