“Why do you defend them?”

No criminal defense lawyer can avoid it. Friends, family, and even strangers ask it. We dread it. But we must answer it: “Why do you defend them?”

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There are many answers. See Defending the Guilty by Barbara A. Babcock or How Can You Represent Those People? by Abbe Smith and Monroe H. Freedman. Each criminal defense lawyer, however, has their own.

But first, who is “them”? It’s certainly not the corporations or the guy who refuses to pay taxes. They’re asking about the people that make the nightly news, the Timothy McVeigh‘s of the world: those accused of reprehensible, violent crime.

A few years ago, if you had asked me what I wanted to do as a lawyer; without hesitation, I would have told you I was a future prosecutor. That’s it. I wanted nothing more than to spend my career prosecuting criminals like Ariel Castro. And I thought being able to say “On behalf of the United States” in court was pretty cool too.

It was not until my first job representing the underprivileged that I flipped. And I mean that quite literally. By the end of my first year of practice, I became a “true believer,” whatever that means. That year, I represented more than five clients who had been falsely accused and many others who had been overcharged. I witnessed, first-hand, the effects of reckless prosecution on my clients and their families. And I saw the Government for what it is: an imperfect bureaucracy with immense power that if not wielded properly can be disastrous.

But more significantly, that first year, I came to know my clients not as “them” or the evil criminals the media and case files made them out to be, but as imperfect people like all of us. In my office, they shared their story with me; they spoke about their family and friends, their hopes and dreams, and their fear of losing everything. By the end of that year, I came to realize that, like me, they too were flawed and, more importantly, they too should not be defined by the worst thing they ever did. At the end of each initial meeting, I would shake their hand and promise I would see them through their case. To me, there has been no greater honor.

I would be disingenuous if I did not also discuss my deeply held belief that it is better to let ten guilty persons go free than one innocent suffer. The fact that the innocence project exists scares me. It is the Government’s burden to prove a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And I’m afraid that if we don’t hold the Government to its burden, the majority’s inflamed passions could result in more innocent people behind bars.

I also love the underdog (Cool Runnings is my favorite 🙂 ). In our justice system, poor defendants are the underdog. The odds are stacked against them; they’re not supposed to win. So when you do win, there is no better high.

I’m a criminal defense lawyer for life.

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“Why do you defend them?” Because they are people too, the Government must be held to its burden, and sometimes it’s pretty damn awesome.