1. I’m a public defender. I’d say most of my clients are guilty of what they were arrested for.
My job isn’t necessarily to get someone acquitted if they are actually guilty, it’s to provide their Constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel, protect their other rights, and act as a check against the prosecutors and police.
I’m supposed to work for the best possible outcome for my client, and 95% of the time this means getting them the best deal I can and making sure the prosecutor is doing their job.
How does it “feel” to represent a guilty client?
Well, I have moral objections to drug laws and serious issues with the way they and many other laws are disproportionately enforced against people of color.
When my clients are there for drugs or loitering and trespassing because they were black and at a park after dark I rage internally at the bullshit.
It is an infrequent occurrence that a true sociopath that simply loves committing crime comes across my desk.
Most of my clients are there, ultimately, because they are poor and black or brown.
That’s why I got into this business in the first place. So generally I feel a-okay representing a guilty client.
2. Public defender here. I describe my job as part doctor, part tour guide.
Like a doctor, sometime I can cure you but sometimes I can just try to make it hurt less.
Sometimes I can’t do either.
Then I’m a tour guide who makes sure that you understand what is happening, why it is happening, and try to give you as much choice in the matter as possible.
At the very least, I sit next to you in court so you don’t have to face the judge by yourself.
3. It’s about holding the state accountable. I don’t care if my guy did it. If we let the state lock him up without doing its job properly, that means next week it could be you, or me, or your mom that gets sent up for something we didn’t do.
4. I rationalize my position as a defense attorney on the one hand by stating that no matter what, every single person deserves the right to a full and complete defense to the greatest extent of my abilities. A defense is guaranteed under the Constitution.
On the other hand, most of the people who need a defense attorney are regular people like you and I.
Aside from the fact that maybe we chose to deal with the hard knocks in life by modifying our behavior and changing our course in life, we are all the same.
We are all empowered to make decisions, some just chose differently. But they are people nonetheless.
Often times I sit and counsel someone who is facing eighteen years for what I would consider to be a minor offense.
Even if he is 42 and it’s likely when he gets out he will be in his sixties, I can see the humanity in his eyes. I tell a joke, and he still laughs. Because he is person. I can see the trust, and see that he is putting his life in my hands, and at that moment it doesn’t matter what he did or has done, he is a person. And that’s what it’s like.
5. The guilty ones are the easy ones. Honestly, that’s 95 percent of my job, and I have absolutely no problem with it. The justice system isn’t a search for the truth, it’s about whether or not the prosecution can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and most of the time, they can. So the client pleads out.
You want to know the real problem, it’s when we have a client who we know is innocent in one way or another and there’s very little we can do. I have a client who’s conduct is minimal, but he’s facing 17 years because of a really shitty situation. I can’t say much more, but seriously, if you knew what he had done and the situation, you’d be pretty pissed too, just like he is. Did he do something stupid? Of course, illegal and worth 17 fucking years? No.
The guilty ones are the easy ones. Most of the time they end up pleading, because most of the time everyone can see they’re guilty a mile away. You advise them of their rights and what you think will happen if you go to trial and then it’s up to them. If they want to take it to trial, that’s what you do and you make your arguments and you sit down.
I had a case where not only was the guy most certainly guilty, I honestly couldn’t find one redeeming quality about him. I tried the hell out of that case. The prosecutor shook my hand at the end of it and said, “You knocked that out of the park, he owes you a lot.” That one wasn’t for the client, who tried to fire me halfway through the case, that one was for me. I’m a really competitive person and I wanted that win. I wanted to win that case because of how terrible it was, if I could win that, I could win anything. Lost it, guilty on all counts.
There’s a lot of motivations out there for why we do what we do, and not everyone is as committed as others, but at the end of the day, nobody in my office has a single qualm about whether you’re guilty or not. It’s all part of the job.
6. Most of it comes down to overcharging, 99.8% of my clients have been guilty of a crime, but in a lot of cases probably not the ones that they have been charged with.
Overcharging is shitty, but typical, and is used for leverage in the plea bargaining phase or if State thinks they can get away with it and have a better public track record as a result. With poor defendants relying on an overworked/understaffed public defender’s office the State gets away with it far too often.
So to answer you question it really makes no difference to me whether they are “innocent or guilty”, I’m still going to make the state prove everything beyond a reasonable doubt and I’m going to fight for my clients whether they are a likable kid who got caught with dope or a scumbag who hits his wife.
7. As a criminal defense attorney in the United States (so I cannot speak for the justice systems of other jurisdictions), my job, at least in part, is to assure that no one is punished when the State is unable to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
For every client I have represented that has faced punishment, I have helped create a record to the best of my ability, that should allow others to review the record and see that the outcome was (hopefully) justified as my client had his legal rights upheld but was still found guilty.
So, it really comes down to a few beliefs:
The State has the burden of proof; everyone has the presumption of innocence until found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the “guilty” client walks free, this means the State’s case was not so “obvious”. If the person is “so” guilty, the State should have no problem demonstrating that to a fact-finder, no matter what any lawyer may say or do.
The justice/legal system is very complicated. It is why I had to go to law school and pass the bar exam to do my job. It would be unfair for any non-attorney to represent him/herself against a prosecutor and be held to the standards of the Rules of Evidence or the Rules of Procedure against a trained prosecutor to defend him/herself.
If the system is to get a “wrong” outcome, I would prefer it errs on the side of letting the guilty walk than to incarcerate an innocent person.
8. I’m a defense lawyer. 95% of clients are factually guilty. No it makes absolutely zero difference to our motivation.
It’s a huge misunderstanding that the justice system determines guilt and innocence. It doesn’t.
It determines whether the state has enough evidence to lock a human in a cage against their will.
So a client actually being guilty has nothing to do with that question.
Moreover, the vast majority (90+% even if you’re a very aggressive attorney) end in a plea. The issue is usually that your client is guilty of something for which they have sufficient evidence, but the state has over charged. You find a reasonable balance based on the strength of the states evidence.
A trial is a broken negotiation and typically only happens if one side is being completely unreasonable, is dumb, or has nothing to lose.
9. It’s my freaking honor to do so. I’m not defending the PERSON, I’m defending the Constitution. When I get in the courtroom, I see it as a clash between hundreds of years of political history in a microcosmic instance. You want my client to explain himself? Too bad, James Madison said no. You think he did it but aren’t sure? Our Founding Fathers specifically wanted you to find him Not Guilty.
I’m no magician. I’m a guy standing between the State putting a Citizen in jail. If the State would just do its job, investigate its witnesses, and put on a somewhat-competent case, they’ll probably win. But you would not believe how often that does not happen.
Every bit of governmental incompetence that you see in stark relief when you go to the DMV or the Post Office also shows up in police departments and prosecutor offices. That plus there is often a hierarchy so low-level prosecutors don’t have the discretion to dismiss cases they should.
As a prosecutor, I had real joy prosecuting the bad guys. But thank God, there are not nearly as many “real crooks” in the world as there are “dumb kids who smoke pot and shoplift.” And when you switch to the Defense side, you see so much incompetence at prosecutor’s offices that most never want to go back.