A couple weeks ago, my father was watching the news and asked me how I would like to defend Josh Powell in court. Implicit in the question was that I should hate to have a client like him, but I can truthfully say that it would not bother me.
Defense attorneys are frequently asked, “How do you defend people who are guilty?” For me, at least, I am more bothered about defending people who are almost certainly innocent. The deck is stacked against defendants, and many jurors unfortunately believe that someone is guilty just because a prosecutor has brought charges. Different prosecutors have different criteria for deciding whether or not to bring charges. Unfortunately, there are prosecutors who bring charges against people they know could be innocent. And it breaks my heart to know that many of them will have their lives unfairly ruined.
But defense attorneys spend the majority of their time defending people who are probably guilty. That’s something that many people find distasteful, but it’s something that I long ago came to terms with. I certainly don’t spend any time worrying whether or not a particular client is guilty. Every defense attorney is different, but here are a few of the reasons that I enjoy my job.
Most people misunderstand the job of a defense attorney. They think our only goal is to get a “not guilty” verdict for someone. That could be what I’m trying to get in a particular case, but usually I am working to get the best possible resolution for my client. In the case of a murder suspect like Josh Powell, the best resolution could be saving his life and avoiding the death penalty. Every case is different, but often the best possible resolution will still mean some level of punishment.
Jails and prisons are nasty, awful places, and sending people to them doesn’t serve anyone. It’s bad for society, it’s bad for the person in jail, and it’s bad for their families. Some may balk at the idea that prisons are bad for society, but they are. Prisons don’t reform people, and instead make them bitter. Also, the vast majority of crimes are drug related, which prison does little-to-nothing to address. I have no ethical qualms about trying to find an alternative punishment for someone. In nearly every instance, society and justice would be better served through an alternative punishment.
Next, I love the Bill of Rights. The First Congress, which wrote the Bill of Rights, decided the rights of the accused are important enough to devote three Constitutional Amendments to them. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to a lawyer. Not many people can say their job is specifically enshrined in the Constitution.
Due to the adversarial system of justice the United States has chosen, someone needs to speak for the accused, and I am happy to do it. There are many other reasons I could name, but these reasons are the most important to me. If you ever are accused of a crime, you’ll understand how important it is to have a defense attorney who cares about you and cares about getting you the pest possible resolution.