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7 Reasons Lawyers Defend Guilty Clients

columbus criminal defense attorney

The trauma nurses who took care of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after his arrest have a straightforward explanation. “I don’t get to pick and choose my patients,” one told the Boston Globe.

That was the lede to a 2013 Washington Post opinion piece titled, “What motivates a lawyer to defend a Tsarnaev, a Castro or a Zimmerman?”

The writer of the opinion piece, in fact, alludes to how familiar this question is for criminal defense lawyers:

These are the kinds of cases that prompt people to ask: “How can you represent those people?” All criminal defense lawyers are asked this; it’s such a part of the criminal defense experience that it’s simply known as “the question.”

“The question” has been particularly relevant locally after a Nov. 9, 2015 Columbus Dispatch article ran about lawyers who turn clients away, often for moral reasons.

We wrote a Letter to The Editor in response, pointing out that most of our clients at Yavitch and Palmer are good people who have made a mistake; they’re just as deserving of representation as anyone.

Here are a few other reasons lawyers defend guilty clients.

Defendants have a right to counsel

Yes, as a lawyer, you have also the right to refuse any case you want, as the American Bar Association rightly points out, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

Most of my clients have done something wrong, or close to it, even though they are fundamentally good people. And guess what? They still need help. They need someone to make sure they are treated fairly. If I represented only truly innocent people, these folks would be shortchanged. They would suffer the wrath of the other side unchecked. And that’s not fair. That’s not the way our system works.

The Force needs balance

Pardon the “Star Wars” reference, but yeah, our system works best when there’s a good lawyer on both sides of a case. See above.

Opposition to the death penalty

Lawyers are often accused of being somehow less than human, of not having feelings, when it comes to defending guilty clients. But many lawyers take on cases, in fact, because they see the humanity in someone who’s made a mistake. They see that person’s worth and want to defendit.

Further, many lawyers do have a proverbial line in the sand that they won’t cross in terms of representation. (And that’s totally fine!) But sometimes lawyers will take on a case because of a moral issue.

For instance, there’s famed anti-death-penalty lawyer David Bruck who’s famously represented several high profile cases because he opposes capital punishment. Most recently, Bruck took on the case of Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston, S.C., shooter.

Some lawyers have also been known to take on cases because they oppose how overcrowded our jails are, particularly with minorities.

Wrongly accused

Truly innocent folks can be prosecuted wrongfully. It happens so much, in fact, there’s actually a Buzzfeed-style list of the “25 Worst Cases of People Being Wrongly Accused.”

Everyone agrees it can happen. But I’ve never seen anyone on the other side (prosecutor, government, etc.) acknowledge that a wrongful prosecution might be happening in the case they are currently prosecuting.

See, when in the thick of it, it’s only human to not see the other side of the coin with clarity. That’s why we need the adversarial system.

It’s your obligation

In lawspeak, it’s the difference between factual and legal guilt. In other words, factual guilt is what the defendant actually did, while legal guilt is what the prosecutor can actually prove.

Basically, it’s your job is to make sure the system works, not to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. In fact, you’re ethically bound to represent all clients zealously, according to the American Bar Association’s Code of Professional Responsibility.

You never really know

Yeah, your client might have confessed to the crime, but did he or she really do it? Maybe she’s covering for a friend. Maybe police coerced him to confess. Maybe he’s guilty of a crime, but it’s a lesser one.

Client trust

As a criminal defense lawyer, you want your client to trust you, to know they can be open and honest with you. You want this because you want the best outcome for your client, and to get the best outcome from your client requires honest communication and a clear idea of what actually happened.

In need of a trusted Columbus criminal defense attorney?

Call Yavitch & Palmer at 614-224-6142 or fill out our online contact form to make an appointment to meet with our experienced team today. If you want to be extra smart, put our number in your phone now for when you might need it.

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