“Guilty”

I’m (mostly) a criminal lawyer. You can probably guess which question I hear most often: “How can you represent someone knowing they’re guilty?” There are two honest answers to that question that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other:

Technically, no one’s “guilty” until they’re convicted by a court of law; the ‘presumption of innocence’ says so. But, in practical terms, that’s really an evasion, since we all know when someone asks the question, they’re not talking about legal niceties. The second (and real) answer is “easily”.

The latter probably conjures up implications of everything from jaded cynicism to an acceptance of anarchy. So be it. But in reality, it’s none of those things.

The “state” defines offences, investigates and prosecutes them with literally unlimited resources. The person on the receiving end of that attention acts, in the circumstances, like every person I (and likely, you) know: Tries to avoid the full consequences of personal responsibility for their actions. Is there anything more basic and human?

Because the deck is so stacked in favor of securing convictions, most of the work engaged in by defense counsel can really be described as damage control – quibbling over evidence, procedure and protocol and – to a degree most people don’t appreciate – plea bargaining. The overwhelming majority of clients are both aware of this reality, and active cheerleaders for it.

What to know what really hard? Representing someone you know in your heart of hearts is completely innocent of the charge or charges they face. In that situation, you are your client’s last resort against the power of the state. Now, that’s pressure!

Fortunately, in 30 years of law practice, I’ve only encountered this scenario a hand full of times. Thankfully, I’ve never had to spend the aftermath of those cases feeling guilty that my client was wrongfully convicted and sentenced.


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