Atticus Finch is the fictional patron saint of defense attorneys. In a racist town, he had the courage to stand up for a black man at great risk to himself and his family. The Atticus character is rightly viewed as heroic. But in one sense, Atticus had it easy. He was fighting for a truly innocent man who was getting railroaded. What if Tom Robinson had been guilty? What if he had been the rapist that the town claimed he was? Would Atticus still have been a hero to stand up to defend him?
I’m not Atticus Finch. I would like to think that I’m a nice, normal guy. In the morning, my wife and I wake up the kids and get breakfast ready before walking them to the bus stop. At night, we brush their teeth and read bedtime stories before tucking them in for the night. In between when I’m at work, I represent people charged with crimes. Sometimes I represent people who have done some pretty awful things. “Why do you defend those people?” is a question so familiar to defense attorneys that it’s called simply “the question.” Different criminal defense attorneys have different answers to “the question.” I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. This post is simply my best effort to explain what drives me.
I never planned on being a criminal defense attorney. I liked criminal law in law school and figured that I wanted to be a prosecutor. I wanted to be the guy in the white hat putting bad guys away, not helping them get away. When I graduated, I applied to several local prosecutors’ offices. I also happened to see an ad in the Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly for an opening in the Virginia Beach Public Defender’s Office. It’s my hometown, and the prosecutors’ offices weren’t exactly beating down my door so I figured what the hell. I interviewed and was offered the job the next day. I honestly looked at it as a stepping stone to being a prosecutor. Instead, it completely changed the course of my life.
A funny thing happened when I started representing criminal clients. It turned out that I liked most of them. I discovered that the line between us and “them” is often very thin. But for a drug addiction; But for desperation; But for being young and impulsive; But for a night of heavy drinking, a lot of these people would be the same as you or me. When you look “them” in the eyes or when “them”s crying mother begs you to save her son, it’s easy to find common humanity. In some cases, it’s obviously easier than others. I’ve been convinced in some cases that my clients are actually innocent. In those cases, it’s very easy to summon passion and outrage and to fight like hell for my clients. Mistaken ID cases; cases where witnesses are lying; cases where the government’s forensic evidence is actually bullshit. All of these happen. These are the cases that defense attorneys live for.
But the truth is that those types of cases represent a fairly small percentage. Most of the people I represent are guilty of something. Why do I still fight for those people? The answer depends on the case. In some cases, people are charged with crimes greater than the ones they actually committed. In other cases, the government is pursuing a punishment far greater than what’s warranted. If defense attorneys decided to walk away, the government would get to do whatever it wanted in every case which is a very scary prospect. Already draconian punishments would get even worse. People who didn’t need to be felons would have their lives ruined. A completely unchecked government is a frightening concept, and I’m happy to be part of the opposition.
Some of you might now be thinking, ‘OK, I can understand defending the innocent, the overcharged, and the overpunished, but what about the really bad ones?’ ‘Why do you defend murderers, rapists, and pedophiles who are guilty as sin?’ ‘Why do you choose to stand next to the scum of the earth?’ The answer is a simple one: I do it because it’s my responsibility. It comes with the territory of being a defense attorney. If I phoned it in because I thought a client was guilty, it would make me the worst kind of coward. Look, it’s not always pleasant. Cross-examining a child witness in a molestation case isn’t fun. But I do it because I’m a professional. Who am I to say whether a man is guilty or innocent? Who am I to determine what a fair punishment is? What I do know is that every person accused deserves at least one person standing up for them. We can’t hope to have a system with any integrity unless people step up to the plate to take on that calling. And I’ll tell you something amazing, my experience has been that even the victims of awful crimes understand this. I’ve been comforted by rape victims outside the courtroom who could see that I was distraught when my client was convicted. I’ve been comforted by the families of a murder victim who could see that I was devastated that my client was sentenced to life. They respected that I had a job to do and that I fought with every ounce of my energy for my client.
Defending people has become a way of life for me. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t give it my best shot no matter who the client is and what the government says he did.