In America one of our basic rights is the right to a fair trial. Even those who have been accused of the most heinous of crimes deserve a fair trial. But that brings up a big moral question, should a lawyer defend someone they know to be guilty? Should their morality outweigh their duty to the justice system? In this paper I will discuss why I believe that everyone deserves a fair trial, and lawyers should defend clients regardless of their personal biases.
First off I think it’s important to consider that in order for a system of law to be truly just the law must encompass all people equally. That means we can’t make exceptions to the law for people we don’t like. If that was the case then the law would just be pointless. For example, a man is accused of committing some heinous crime and everyone’s first reaction was to assume he did it and take him out back and hang him… Just because he looked like a bad guy and there was some circumstantial evidence. Was justice really served?
The defender is just as important, if not more important as the prosecutor in criminal cases. The jury must make a decision after hearing both sides of the story. This is important in both freeing innocent people and convicting guilty people. Regardless of whether a person guilty or innocent, the prosecution must make their case, and the defense must refute it. If the case against the accused is strong enough then even with a good defense the person will likely be put away.
The downside of this is that sometimes people who do commit crimes get off because of the fact that they had a good defense lawyer. This does require the lawyer to have some moral ambiguity. I will not claim that this is morally acceptable for the lawyer to defend someone who is in fact guilty, but it is a necessary evil. We must remember that the burden of guilt falls on the prosecution whose job it is to prove guilt. If a guilty man goes free the blame should fall of the failure of the prosecution not the success of the defense.
I know that seems a little dark, but let’s look at it from the other side. There are many cases where innocent men have gone to jail, sometimes even for decades before they are eventually found innocent through DNA evidence or some other means (for those few lucky enough to even have their cases reexamined). In many of these cases the accused was assigned a public defender who “knew” the defendant was guilty and did a sloppy job. If the lawyer would have been objective and defended his client with the presumption of innocence then perhaps an innocent man wouldn’t have had to go through all that suffering
Finally, it brings us to that old mantra, “Innocent until proven guilty.” We’ve all heard it on COPS, perhaps it’s because we’ve heard it so often that it’s lost its meaning. This is probably the most important thing for any defense lawyer to remember. When a defendant enters a courtroom you must assume he is innocent. It isn’t the defense lawyer’s job to prove his innocence, because innocence is already assumed. It is the job of the prosecution to prove that, in fact he is guilty. The defense must simply refute his guilt, or provide reasonable doubt of his guilt. If the prosecution cannot prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty then he must be found “not guilty.” We must remember at no point in the court are you “proving innocent” there is only “guilty” or “not guilty.”
In Conclusion, being a defense lawyer is not an easy job. There is no clear cut line between right and wrong. But it’s very important that everyone gets a fair trial. Ultimately, only God can truly decide if someone is innocent or guilty. Lawyers are not Gods, and we don’t live in a perfect world where the good guy always wins and the bad guy always goes to jail. The only choice we have is to try to be fair and just, and hope that upholding the law equally is serving a greater good and that at the end of the day we’re doing more good than harm.
Originally written on 4/20/08 by Adam Zivojnovich