How Can You Defend Someone You Know Is Guilty?

Attorney walking into a court house

Criminal defense attorneys are frequently asked "How can you defend someone you know is guilty?" The question is understandable, particularly in light of the fact that most people don't really understand the professional and moral obligations of a criminal defense attorney. A better understanding of what a criminal defense attorney does and the duty he or she owes to a client helps answer the question.

Within the criminal justice system, there are two sides with diametrically opposed functions and objectives. On one side, you have the law enforcement agencies who investigate criminal activities and state or federal attorneys who prosecute those charged with criminal offenses. On the other side, you have defendants charged with crimes and the criminal defense attorneys who defend them. A prosecutor's job is to use the evidence collected by law enforcement agencies to convict a defendant. A criminal defense attorney's job, in essence, is to make sure the prosecutor does his or her job properly under the law. In the United States, an individual is innocent until proven guilty. This concept is the cornerstone of our legal system. It means that the prosecuting attorney has the burden of proving that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The accused is not required to prove his or her innocence. Therefore, in the legal sense — which is what counts — guilt is not decided until the trier of fact has made the determination. Even if a client walks into an attorney's office and says "I did it, I'm guilty," guilt has not been established because a judge or jury has not pronounced the individual guilty.

Contrary to what many people believe, the job of a defense attorney is not to prove a client's innocence. Innocence does not need to be proven. In truth, a client's guilt or innocence is not relevant. What is relevant is whether or not an accused receives a fair trial and his or her Constitutional rights are protected. The job of a criminal defense attorney is to protect the rights of an accused throughout the prosecution of a case and beyond, in many cases. A criminal defense attorney should zealously work toward ensuring that all clients, whether believed innocent or guilty, receive a fair trial, and that no client's rights are violated during the process.  A criminal defense attorney must make sure the prosecutor meets their high burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and follows the law.

Does this mean that guilty individuals escape punishment sometimes? Yes, it does. However, of greater importance is the fact that this fair process dramatically decreases the likelihood that an innocent individual will be punished. As the eminent British jurist William Blackstone once stated, "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." If we do not vigorously protect the rights of all defendants, the system will not work. The Rule of Law dictates that we cannot pick and choose which defendants get a fair trial, which defendants' rights we will protect, and which defendants must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. These are the founding principles of the American justice system and they either apply to all individuals accused of a crime or to none. For our system to truly work, we must have equal justice for all. A criminal defense attorney who properly does his job will make Justice Blackstone's words come to life.

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