“When you are promoted, you will be a DA?” I nearly choked on my food.
“No, definitely not. I have no desire to be a DA,” I responded. I proceeded to explain that I could work for a district attorney’s office now if I wanted to, but that I have absolutely no desire to spend my career prosecuting people for mistakes they may or may not have made during their lifetime.
Invariably, the next question that followed was, “How do you defend people that you know are guilty?” Any defense attorney will tell you that this is by far the most common question asked by people who find out what they do for a profession. Whether it is the stranger on the bus, the mother of your child’s friend, or your hairdresser, the question will always arise. Overtime, you have your answer down pat. You resist the urge to roll your eyes and instead, spout out the well-rehearsed answer that you always give to those inquirers.
Of course, people are curious. Of course, people want to feel informed. Of course, some people are merely making conversation. Think about it, though. How often do people walk up to deputy district attorneys and ask them point-blank, “How do you prosecute people you believe to be innocent?” At times, this question arises I am sure, but rarely ever is it one of the very first questions asked of a deputy district attorney when his or her profession is learned.
There are many documented accounts of innocent people behind bars. Anthony Ray Hinton writes a phenomenal memoir called “The Sun Does Shine” that documents his experience as an innocent man on death row. Nonprofit organizations such as The Innocence Project are tremendously successful in exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. The nonfiction book “Mean Justice” chronicles prosecutorial misconduct and the lengths people take to build a case against innocent defendants. Unfortunately, wrongful convictions are all too common.
What is worse? Sitting indefinitely behind bars for a murder you committed or serving a life sentence behind bars for a murder that law enforcement and the district attorney have falsely accused you of committing? I have yet to meet anyone who believes that it would be preferable to squander away your life involuntarily in prison for someone else’s wrongdoing than for your own misconduct.
Yet, society is less concerned with the mishaps of prosecutors and the misuse of prosecutorial charging power than how a defense attorney can defend a—gasp—criminal. With an alarming frequency, individuals who strongly favor the prosecution will state, “It is such a small majority of persons who are actually innocent in prisons and there is no way to make the system flawless. The prosecution is doing all that it can to ensure that society only incarcerates the guilty.”
Such a viewpoint is too black and white. For one, it assumes that there truly are only two options: guilty and innocent. Really, there are many shades of gray. For instance, someone can be guilty of being an accessory after the fact to a crime, but they absolutely did not commit the crime itself nor did they have any knowledge of the plan to commit that crime. Therefore, that person is not guilty of the more severe underlying crime that carries a much harsher penalty. Yet, prosecutors routinely overcharge cases and people who are not guilty of the overcharged crime find themselves locked behind bars for a substantial sentence.
Second, society routinely focuses on the fact that if a guilty person is let loose on the streets, the number of crime victims will escalate. Assuming that arrested and released individual does not learn a lesson, it is true that there may be more crime victims in the future. However, society is overlooking that there are also numerous victims when an innocent man is incarcerated. A man who is not guilty of a crime has now had his life stripped away. He is a victim of the imperfect criminal justice system. His life is not the only one affected. His children have lost a father. His wife has lost a husband. His mother and father have lost a son. His brothers and sisters have lost a sibling. His closest friends have lost a confidant. All of these individuals in the man’s community are victims as well.
It is easy to think a certain outcome is justifiable when it does not directly impact you. However, place yourself in the shoes of someone serving jail or prison time for a crime in which he was not involved. Imagine that it is you wilting away on death row for a gruesome double murder that you did not commit. Pretend for a moment that your sister or your brother is the one reduced to a life in a five-by-seven cell. It is highly doubtful that you would respond with: “Oh well, at least I am giving up my life for the good of society” or “I approve of my sister being locked behind bars. Some innocent people have to take the fall.” Instead, you would be outraged. You would be livid. You would most likely become that advocate for the same innocent people behind bars whom you currently roll your eyes at while thinking, “Most people are guilty.”
Imagine a world where individuals accused of crimes received zero representation. The police and prosecutors said you committed the crime, so it must be so. There would be no way to stand up for yourself. No way to combat the charges. No way to voice your side of the story, at least not without being called a liar.
Defense attorneys have crucial jobs in our society. It is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. Watching clients you come to truly like and respect get sentenced to double digits in prison is not a pleasant experience. Witnessing a grown man cry when the jury comes back with a guilty verdict and the bailiff places him in hand cuffs is gut wrenching. Sitting in court and listening to the derogatory comments the district attorney aims at your client tugs at your heartstrings. But thankfully, there are people who want to represent the accused. There are people who are willing to stand in the firing line and face ridicule as they stand beside their client, that same person society deems a monster.
Even someone who is guilty needs representation. The whole system would fall apart if defense attorneys were not a part of the legal process. I urge you, I challenge you, to take the following question out of your repertoire: how do you defend someone who you know is guilty? It is easy to defend anyone when you believe in humanity, when you believe in the good of people. Everyone is entitled to representation. Instead, focus more of your concern on those innocent people behind bars. They need you.