August 26, 2010

How Can You Defend Those People?

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“Innocent people deserve a defense, sure, but how can you possibly defend someone who really did it?” “I mean, if you know someone is guilty, don’t you want them to go to prison?” “How can you defend those people?” Public defenders are probably the least-respected members of the legal community. This summer I interned with a Public Defender’s Office, which provides criminal defense services to those who cannot afford a private attorney, and I have now experienced what it means to defend this thankless job to the world.The assumption many people have is that all criminals are bad people. Those who hold this assumption cannot then understand how an otherwise good person, i.e., a lawyer who does not commit crimes, could defend such people — lessening the amount of time they spend in jail, maybe even saving them from a conviction. The most common response to that question is one offered by my boss: “We’re the only people keeping you from living in a police state.” That is true. Defense attorneys are the ones who review police reports with a critical eye, fight violations of the Bill of Rights,and stop the prosecution from abusing its power. Defending a criminal charged with a crime is to defend the rights afforded under the Constitution — because those rights should apply to the weakest members of our society, not just the innocent.This answer, however, appears somewhat unsatisfying to people. They can agree that fighting violations of the Constitution is good, or that defending innocent people from the prosecution is good. But I have had people tell me I should deliberately sabotage the clients I know are guilty, in order to help society as a whole. That idea is wrong for so many reasons. First, it means replacing the role of attorney with that of judge and jury. The judgment of a single attorney — which would be based in part on confidential information shared through attorney-client interactions — should not replace the process given to the system as a whole. Second, defendants do not need any help from their attorneys to be convicted of crimes. The system is built such that once a defendant is charged, he will almost always be convicted. A fellow attorney phrased the job of a public defender this way: “They are the machine, and we throw a wrench in the machine to try to slow it down.”Not all of the work of a public defender is absolving defendants of their responsibility. Sometimes the best service you can provide to a client is to explain what their options are and help determine a course of action that will not disrupt his or her life. Sometimes the job involves catching cases that would have fallen through the cracks without further review. I had a client this summer who was charged with having her dog off his leash in a public park, which can be charged as a misdemeanor. At the time of the incident, the woman had been training her service animal to retrieve help in case she had a panic attack, a symptom of her chronic depression and PTSD. I got her case dismissed, but I doubt that is the kind of client what would urge the question, “How can you defend those people?”However, not all clients fall into this camp. I listened to one of the attorneys in our office complain about his client at lunch. His client was a pimp who had tortured one of his prostitutes by shooting tear gas into her mouth, which made her vomit blood. The lawyer felt his client was a cruel, heartless chauvinist. In the courtroom, before the judge and the jury, however, the lawyer defended his client brilliantly. This is the disconnect that people cannot understand: How could a lawyer defend such a person?In our society, everyone is granted the right of a defense. Criminals are human beings and citizens, worthy of protection and respect. The defense attorney is the only person in the courtroom willing to advocate for this person. Sometimes that attorney is really the only person who has ever stood up for them. When people assume that criminals are “bad” people, they fail to recognize that most people who end up in the criminal justice system have been victims themselves — of mental illness, trauma or just a lack of structure and opportunity. You can hate the crime and still have compassion for the person who committed it. The most important thing is that the defense attorney is the only person in the system who actually sits down and talks with the person charged with a crime, taking the time to listen to the person like a human being. They deserve to have someone standing up for them, and if they are convicted, they deserve to have a friendly face standing next to them, to whisper in their ears what we’re going to do next.Kate Lee is a third year law student and an articles editor for the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. She can be contacted at kcl55@cornell.edu Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Kate Lee