This is one of the most common questions a criminal defense attorney gets at ballgames or cocktail parties. The common responses of “I was just doing my job,” or the slightly better “it’s the state’s job to prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt, and I’m the gatekeeper to hold them accountable to that requirement” will suffice, but it really doesn’t answer the question adequately to those genuinely curious as to how someone can represent a person who is guilty.
Some lawyers will respond that they don’t know whether their client is guilty, because (a) they never ask, and (b) the only relevant question is whether the state can prove guilt. Others may suggest that they’re just trying to ensure that the sentence is in line with the severity of the crime. Still, these responses lack meaning. One perspective that the general public can understand is that to represent someone charged with a crime by the state or federal government is to defend someone against an all-powerful entity…someone needs to be there to ensure that the State “plays by the rules.” It’s the very reason a confession can’t be obtained by torture, or it will be thrown out. The all-too familiar adage that it’s “better for five guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to lose their freedom” is something many Americans will agree with, because they understand that that one innocent person could someday be them.
However, there is another perspective. As humans, aren’t we taught to help the poor and outcast? Jesus himself chose to hang out with prostitutes, thieves, and sinners. Everyone, including those accused of a crime, needs someone to stand with them and for them. Honestly, the question shouldn’t be “how can you represent the guilty,” but rather “why don’t we serve the guilty more often and more willingly?” Jesus died for the guilty. A criminal defense lawyer is just being called to serve the guilty.
If you truly stopped to think about the guilty, you’ll probably find that the criminal act itself is indicative of a deeper emotional or economic problem. If a lawyer can develop some type of relationship with this person, it’s possible that the deeper issues can be addressed. If a lawyer can help the Defendant visualize a different future than his current path, this may be the only avenue for healing for the accused. And it may be the only time someone has reached out to this person to try and help rehabilitate them. Plus, it may also be of benefit to the lawyer, who finds that he or she may suffer from unhealthy biases and preconceptions. And, it’s a way to try and get to the root of one of society’s major flaws. To understand a problem is a requirement to address it.
Even if no one else is around to be in a Defendant’s corner, the criminal defense lawyer may inherently hear the question: “will you stand by this person, this flawed human being, and speak a word on his behalf?”
Jeff Harrelson specializes in criminal defense and criminal appeals and can be reached at the Texarkana office of the Harrelson Law Firm today: (870) 772-0300.