How Do Criminal Attorneys Stand Representing Child Molesters and Mass Murderers?
James Holmes, Jeffery Dalmer, Eric Williams; all of these individuals have been represented by criminal defense attorneys.
I’m often asked, and I know that many people want to ask but think it impolite to do so, how can I stand to represent people who have committed horrible crimes? A related question is, “How do you represent someone who you know is guilty?”
My stock reply to the first question is, “All of my clients are innocent.” Of course, I and everyone who asks this question knows this is not true but I ask it in order to challenge the assumption that all of my clients are guilty. My stock reply to the second question is, “Why didn’t you ask how I felt when a client I knew was innocent was found guilty?”
Again, I attempt to challenge the assumption implicit in the question. In fact, criminal defense lawyers often have a difficult time relating to the concern expressed in these questions. Once one accepts the fact that criminal attorneys generally represent anyone who is charged with a crime, some of whom will be innocent, the concern seems misplaced. I think everyone would agree that some innocent people get arrested, and I think everyone would agree that a lawyer can’t immediately discern the guilty from the innocent merely by having an initial meeting with the prospective client. If a lawyer then only represented clients who continued to maintain their innocence then many unnecessary trials would result. There would be few clients who accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty if admitting their guilt caused their lawyer to “jump ship.”
As a practical matter, then, lawyers tend to represent whoever walks through their door and can pay their fee. Most clients are in fact guilty and will eventually admit their guilt. Clients who go to trial are generally maintaining their innocence and have an arguable case as to why they are not guilty. The client who admits guilt usually seeks leniency in sentencing; a goal most criminal defense lawyers are happy to pursue. The criminal defense lawyer is simply not confronted with an ethical dilemma in these situations. This is not to say that a defense lawyer is never presented with ethical dilemmas.
An Ethical Dilemma for Criminal Attorneys
A defense lawyer might represent a man charged with murder, for example, who admits his role in the crime yet nevertheless demands a trial because the consequences of a guilty plea are so severe. The rules that govern these uncomfortable situations are for the most part clear. The lawyer has no duty to get off the case, (in fact, few judges would let them), but may not knowingly put on perjured testimony. In other words, if a client says, “Yea, I killed him, but I’m going to lie to the jury and say I didn’t,” the lawyer should not just close his eyes and play along. The lawyer should try to persuade the client not to attempt to “pull the wool” over everyone’s eye’s, (it really is difficult to fool twelve people), and allow the defense lawyer to try to persuade the jury that the State’s evidence is insufficient. A client, has a right to testify in his own defense, and if he insists on doing this while proclaiming the fact that he is committing perjury to his defense lawyer, the rules of ethics will guide the lawyer about his available options at this point. Those options vary from State. Thankfully this is a very rare circumstance.
Effective Representation is Mandatory to Protect Innocence
The shortest answer to the concern is that defense lawyers know that in order to protect the innocent every accused person deserves effective representation. They also understand every guilty person deserves a fair sentence, just as the victim of their crime deserves justice. The true nightmare of a criminal defense lawyer is representing someone who the lawyer feels is innocent yet being unable to prevent his client from being a victim of the criminal justice system.