How Can I Possibly Defend Those People?
Why I Defend the Criminally Accused
In law school, I would like to believe we have all had our “Paper Chase” moment (hope I am not dating myself… If I am, rent the movie or watch the TV show on Netflix) where Professor Kingsfield pulls his seating chart, finds your picture, and calls your name to address the question of the day….my moment came in criminal law and procedure. I don’t recall the question, but I have always recalled my answer, “... everyone deserves the best defense possible, but I will never be the one to give it to them!” Although I began my career as a deputy county attorney, for the past 22 years, I am that person giving each of my client’s the best defense possible.
Many individuals and lawyers can’t understand why I would elect to defend “those people.” If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that question, I could probably retire right now. The question usually arises in social settings where people will ask me what I do for a living. After their understanding smile and a polite, “That’s interesting,” I normally ask them if they or someone they have known has ever been arrested and charged with any crime.
I often follow that question by asking them if they have ever witnessed the system come down on one of their loved ones or friends with no regard for their life at all. Usually, I am greeted with confused silence. I then try to explain to them that I do not keep bad people out of prison, but rather, I defend the Constitution that announces to everyone, “innocent until proven guilty.” I do my best to make sure my client is prosecuted for the crimes committed, not the crimes suspected. It may sound simple, but in short, as a criminal defense attorney, I am a defender of the Constitution and the defender of any citizen accused of a crime.
It does not matter if the accused has actually committed the crime. My job is to make sure that the government and police follow the rules, do their job, and not trample on my client’s rights. I am my client’s mouthpiece, his advocate. Unlike a civil matter, my job is to protect my client’s liberty. Although the Constitution demands my client is innocent until proven guilty, the fact is an accusation alone may be enough for my client to lose his job, his family, and his assets. My job is to make sure my client is not run over by a government run amok and who frequently see my client as just another case number and crime. My job is to make sure the prosecutors see my client as a person, and as a person with rights.
I would like to believe that most people have had no contact with the criminal justice system. And, certainly even fewer have had contact when facing potential felony charges and the risk of prison. Because of that, my jury panels are often a collective group of people that “understand” criminal law by having watched “CSI” or “Law and Order.” Not only do I need to protect my client’s rights, but I also need to educate the jury that the principles upon which I stand are based on an ideology that is not outmoded. Just like trying to explain my profession in a social gathering, I need to break down that same, misguided belief system to an uneducated, naive individual. I need to teach and educate every jury panel, that in this country, regardless of the offense, every person is innocent until proven guilty.
If you want to see the literal application of this, all you need to do is attend any DUI trial. In voir dire, despite the instructions to consider the defendant innocent, a number of jurors will still respond that the simple of act of driving with alcohol in your system means you are guilty of a DUI. The jury panel must understand that the person is just facing an accusation…they haven’t heard any evidence. Many people think if you were arrested and charged with an offense, you must be guilty. I mean, why else would the police have arrested you? They don’t make mistakes, after all.
Yet, it never fails that several panel members still believe the act of drinking and driving, without a showing of impairment, is sufficient to commit a DUI.
Once I begin to explain what typically happens to someone who is convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, their attitude starts to change. They cannot believe that someone who is convicted of a felony drug case could lose their job, their professional licenses, their marriage, their kids, etc., They cannot believe that an 18-19-year-old kid who did a “beer run” or who borrowed a car can receive a felony conviction that could prevent him from ever voting, ever obtaining a professional license, or be saddled with a felony record forever. I have seen felony convictions affect credit history and rental applications. Depending on the conviction, one may not be able to participate in basic kid-related functions like Boy and Girl Scouts, being allowed to volunteer to coach their kids’ little league team or participate at a school function for their child.
The media and society make it easy to say, “throw the book at them” and walk away. Politicians get elected by being “tough on crime.” The criminal defense bar is always facing an uphill battle. The majority of my clients are truly not bad people. They are people who made a bad choice. I even occasionally represent an actually innocent person.
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I defend “those people” because “those people” have no one left to stand up for them. The government is a mighty force that can and will gang up on any one individual at any given time. I will stand up on my soapbox and defend the Constitution. It’s what I do and who I am.
As always, if you or anyone you know is arrested or being investigated for any crime, please feel free to give me a call at 602-957-3300.