How do You Represent “Those People?”
It’s probably the most common question that defense attorneys get: “How do you represent those people?”
Friends, family, prosecutors, or random people I just met – it’s The Question that defense lawyers have to answer over and over. How do I represent those people? How do I represent people who are accused of committing crimes? How do I represent people if I know they are guilty?
Many defense attorneys have answered The Question, and they answer it in 100 different ways. There is no one answer. Even for myself, there are multiple answers to The Question, and there are multiple variations of The Question that demand different answers.
Here’s my take on it…
Who are “Those People?”
What people are you talking about, exactly?
People who are accused of committing crimes? Any crimes, or people who are accused of committing horrific crimes? People who are guilty of committing crimes, or are you also talking about the people who most likely did not commit the crimes they are accused of?
Who are “those people?” They are your neighbors, your classmates, your coworkers, your family members, and the people you go to church with on Sunday. They are your spouse and your children. Believe it or not, “those people” are you.
There is no dividing line between “those people” who get accused of crimes and “us” who are upstanding, moral, ethical, law-abiding citizens. That might make you feel better about yourself, but it’s a false dichotomy.
Every person is subject to being accused of a crime at some point in their life. Some are falsely accused of crimes. Some committed crimes but they had a good reason or at least a viable excuse. Others just screwed up badly, like most of us have done or will do at some point in our lives.
Shades of Gray
Criminal justice is not black and white – you committed a crime; you go to jail. That’s a nice, neat framework to help us process the idea of locking human beings in cages and separating them from their families, jobs, and lives, but it’s not reality.
Instead of black and white, criminal justice is filled with shades of gray…
You may be 100% innocent and you have been wrongfully accused of the crime. Believe it or not, it happens every day in our criminal courts. People are regularly wrongfully accused, some of the people who are wrongfully accused are wrongfully convicted, some of the people who are wrongfully convicted are locked in prison, and some of the people who are wrongfully convicted are executed by our government.
You may be guilty of the charges. Does that mean you should go to prison and spend years or a lifetime locked in a cage? Does that mean you should be convicted and carry a permanent record of your mistake that employers and anyone who cares to look will see for the rest of your life, like a scarlet letter “A” branded onto your clothing?
Guilty, Not Guilty, and Innocent
As an aside, the criminal justice system in our country is not based on the polar opposites of guilt or innocence – “innocent” is never an option on the verdict form that is given to jurors at the end of a trial.
Jurors have the options of “guilty” or “not guilty,” and that is it. Guilty means the government has proven each and every element of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Not guilty means the government has not proven each and every element of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt.
Not guilty does not necessarily mean innocent, although it often does.
A variation of The Question is: “how do you represent guilty people?” Well, how the Hell do I know who is guilty? If someone may have committed a crime, but there is not enough evidence to say that they committed the crime beyond any reasonable doubt, they are not guilty and they are entitled to an acquittal.
Why is our system set up that way? It’s because often things are not the way that they seem. People really do get set up by police or by other people. Innocent people confess to crimes when they are under pressure. Innocent people are often in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Also, it is absolutely better to release ten “guilty” defendants, when you are not sure they are guilty, then to wrongfully convict, imprison, or execute a single innocent person.
The System is Designed to Protect the Accused
What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? It has many purposes, but the overarching principle, found in the name, is to achieve Justice in criminal cases.
Justice for a crime victim may be to see their attacker convicted, imprisoned, and hurt. It may be to see their attacker separated from society and monitored in prison or on probation so they cannot hurt anyone else. But Justice for a crime victim is never to see the wrong person convicted…
Justice for a person who is wrongfully accused is an acquittal followed by compensation for the false accusations and arrest – in most cases, however, a wrongfully accused person will be fortunate to escape with their freedom.
Justice for a person who committed a crime may be to ensure the punishment fits the crime and the circumstances under which the crime was committed. Should a homeless person be sent to prison for stealing food? Should a father be condemned for hurting the person who raped their child?
More than anything, the criminal justice system is designed to protect the accused.
Because, without the right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to a jury trial, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to subpoena witnesses and evidence in your own defense, the right to testify in your own defense, the right to remain silent, and the right to competent defense counsel, innocent people will be charged, convicted, and unjustly punished.
History has proven it, and you need only look to the justice systems in other countries around the world to see it in action today…
Do I Choose My Clients?
As a criminal defense lawyer in private practice, I absolutely have the right to choose my clients unless they are appointed by the court.
But do I turn away a potential client because I think they are guilty before I’ve even seen the evidence in their case? No…
Do I “fire” a client when I find out they are guilty, even if I didn’t know that when they retained me? No, and what ethical defense attorney would?
Should I turn away any person who arrives on my doorstep asking for help, when their freedom, their family, their career, or their life is at stake? Should I turn someone away because I judge them for the crime they are accused of committing?
Does a doctor or nurse choose their patients, turning away the ones that they judge to be unworthy of their help?
I Only Represent Innocent Clients
I reserve the right to only accept cases that I am comfortable defending, and there are some cases that I would decline, whether it is because of the nature of the charges, a professional conflict between clients, or a personal conflict with the potential client.
I have heard attorneys say, with a straight face, “I only represent innocent clients.” That’s bull****. It might sound good, and the attorney might think potential jurors will hear that and it will improve their chances of acquittals at trial. But, no.
In most cases, no attorney truly knows whether their client is innocent or guilty unless their client tells them up front that they are guilty – even then, we know that people falsely confess to crimes for a variety of reasons.
Are attorneys ethically permitted to “get off” a criminal case because they see that the evidence is pointing to their client’s guilt? They told me they were innocent, but the state’s evidence is proving otherwise, so am I now entitled to get off the case?
Maybe, but I will tell you that a criminal defense lawyer who “only represents innocent clients” is not a criminal defense lawyer, and they are probably also a liar…
I represent many innocent clients – they are the ones that keep me up at night, fearing that a wrongful conviction will be on my conscience if I miss one thing in my investigation, research, or trial prep. I also represent clients who are not guilty, and I also represent clients who are guilty.
The Most Beautiful People are Broken
Most of my clients are ordinary people, with ordinary lives, with families, with careers, hopes, and dreams for the future.
I also help clients who are suffering from mental illness, emotional disturbances, or substance abuse problems. Clients who feel broken and who have committed crimes or who have been accused of committing crimes because of their circumstances and their struggles.
Those people, I think, are the most beautiful. The most beautiful people are broken, and it is part of my job to help those people stay out of prison, avoid an unjust conviction, or find the help that they need as part of their defense.
I Represent the Constitution
What about the people who are not beautiful at all? The ones who, without a doubt, have committed the most heinous crimes imaginable, have no remorse, no excuse, and may commit similar crimes again in the future? These clients are exceedingly rare, but they exist.
I have also heard defense attorneys respond to The Question by saying, “I represent the Constitution. I represent the Bill of Rights. My job is to ensure that the process is fair, that this client’s constitutional rights were protected, that police and prosecutors did not lie and cheat to get a conviction, and that this person, horrific as you may think they are, got the best defense possible.”
Why should the most despicable person who commits the most heinous crime get the best defense possible? Because, if they get the best defense possible, I know that you and I will also get the best defense possible if we are wrongfully accused of the most heinous crimes.
Turn-About is Fair Play
A prosecutor might ask, “How do you represent guilty people?” And, my response would be, “How do you convict innocent people?”
A prosecutor’s job is to seek Justice in the courtroom. Despite this, some prosecutors refuse to dismiss cases where they have insufficient evidence, they hide exculpatory evidence, they make legal arguments that are not supported by the law, they call witnesses to the stand who they know are not being truthful, they seek harsh punishments that are unjust, and they tear apart people’s lives and families.
So, please tell me, how do you convict innocent people and sleep at night?
What is a Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Job?
What is a criminal defense attorney’s job?
I don’t represent the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the court system, the judge, or the prosecutor. I represent my client.
My job as a criminal defense lawyer is to win my client’s case. My job is to do everything legally and ethically possible to win my client’s case.
My job is also to seek Justice, and I am bound by state and federal laws, court rules, and the ethics rules that govern lawyers. I have a duty to the Court. I have a duty to third parties, witnesses, and victims. But, within those constraints, my duty is to my client and that means my job, whenever possible, is to win my client’s case.
Thoughts? Anything you would add to the conversation? Leave a comment below or send me a message…
Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC
Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts.
If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you are under investigation in the Charleston, Georgetown, or Myrtle Beach areas of SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to schedule a free consultation.