One of the more frustrating sentiments I encounter is the notion that innocent people do not need a lawyer. I see two major problems with the sentiment. First, the police and the prosecutor do not have special abilities to recognize who is innocent and who is guilty. Second, it presupposes that only guilty people ever get put on trial. Let us take a moment to examine each of these misconceptions.
The first misconception puts a bit too much faith in police and prosecutors to spot and recognize the truth. They are only human. They are also dependent on the process working correctly, despite being overworked and underpaid.
The police, most of the time, do not personally witness crimes and they have to rely on outside witnesses. Sometimes those witnesses are simply wrong, but some also lie to the police. (Many accused people are shocked that the police are unable to see a witness is lying.) Even when the police do personally witness crimes, they are susceptible to errors of perception and judgment. The police then write a report about what they saw and what they were told. Ideally, police reports are descriptive, accurate, and complete. Often the reports are full of jargon, containing the buzzwords they think the prosecutor wants, while leaving many important facts out. A prosecutor then relies on these reports in deciding who and what to charge. In Utah, prosecutors usually do not speak to witnesses, including the police, until it is time for trial or a suppression hearing.
The second misconception is a symptom of the first: it presupposes that prosecutors always know the truth and therefore if someone is on trial, that person is guilty. Most Americans are familiar with the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” but jury surveys suggest people often ignore this central part of our justice system. Despite being told that they must weigh all the evidence, a majority of jurors decide to issue a guilty verdict simply because someone is on trial.
Jurors think that prosecutors only go forward with cases where the prosecutor is absolutely sure the defendant is guilty. Unfortunately, prosecutors do not have that much time to dedicate to individual cases. They spend a little time looking over the case file, and maybe a few minutes speaking to the witnesses, but not much more. And due to the high turnover in many offices, a different prosecutor than the one that initially decided to file charges or who appeared at arraignment may conduct the trial. In such a system, prosecutors have little time to ponder whether a defendant is actually guilty or innocent.
In many ways, people who believe they are innocent are prone to making their cases worse. They do not see the problem with talking to the police and believe they can convince the police of their innocence. If the police have arrested you, they already think you are guilty. Also, there are so many crimes now that it is easy to admit to doing something illegal. You are not going to talk them into believing you are innocent and you may even add new charges. The innocent, most of all, need a lawyer.