Not Guilty is Not a Victory—it’s a Relief

“Mr. Foreperson, has the jury agreed upon a verdict?”

“We have.”

“Will the Defendant please rise?”

“We, the jury, find John Smith not guilty.”

After a not guilty verdict is read, I’ve seen tears, I’ve seen anger, but I’ve never seen victory nor have I ever felt it. Because once you’re charged in this country, you’ve already lost. You’ve lost your reputation, money, peace of mind, friends, and sometimes even family. A not guilty verdict, therefore, is not a victory—it’s just one less-bad thing.

Criminal defense lawyers do not win trials; they only prevent further damage. So when you get a not guilty verdict, it’s not victory; it’s a relief. You are relieved that the countless hours you put into the case made a difference and, more importantly, you are relieved that your client, the person who trusted you with their life, can now walk free. It’s an incredible feeling, but it’s not victory.

Victory as a criminal defense lawyer is possible, but it doesn’t happen in a courtroom and is seldom recognized or celebrated. Said best by the great Edward Bennett Williams: “Victory is keeping your client from going to trial in the first place.” And to achieve that you have to be early and aggressive.

Criminal cases progress linearly: a complaint is made, an investigation is done, charges are filed, and the case is prosecuted. And as the case progresses, it becomes harder to stop as more resources are invested and more minds are made up. Therefore, to win for your client, you can’t wait to defend; you must investigate; you must find dispositive facts outside of the case file; and you must use those facts to influence the charging decision. And when doing so, you must make it painstakingly obvious to the Government why the case should not move forward. Only then will you be able to win for your client.

Otherwise, the case will continue to trial. Your client will lose their reputation, money, peace of mind, friends, and family. And like John Smith, your client will also be asked to rise. Only this time, they may not get the same relief.