Time to clear something up.

A lot of the time when I tell people that I do criminal defense I get asked the same question. “How can you live with yourself when you know that you’re defending a client that’s guilty?”

It’s funny. That question is such a monumental issue for laypersons whenever they think about the legal profession, but it isn’t really something you think about when you’re an attorney. That’s the case for a couple of reasons. First, it’s important to note that under the Ethics Rules that govern lawyers, it is illegal to mislead a judge or jury. So it’s not like we can go out there and perpetuate a client’s fraudulent defense. Nonetheless, this issue is very complex and our attitudes toward it as lawyers are rooted in fundamental principles of American Jurisprudence that, in my opinion, don’t get enough airplay in our social discourse.

The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” means so much more than we typically give it credit for. Government by and for the people means that we all exist in a state of equality that transcends the civil rights and economic issues that are usually brought to mind when we think of American democracy. More than just guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities, the level playing-field that our Constitution calls for guarantees that none of us stands above any other in the eyes of the law. Now, a common way to think about that is to invoke the idea that “nobody is above the law.” But that doesn’t just mean that nobody is immune to the restrictions the law places upon us; it also means that no individual is above any other in enforcing those laws.

For much of human history, the poor classes were at the whims of the ruling class when it came to the penal system. If the king said you were guilty, then you were guilty. As societies developed and started resembling the present, courts and tribunals started replacing monarchs as the eyes of the law (mostly at the delegation of the ruling classes that became annoyed with the responsibility). As courts evolved, devices such as burdens of proof, evidence, confrontation of witnesses, etc. began to find their way into the protocol. As the power to convict shifted out of the hands of the government and more into the hands of the people, the concept of justice that we take as inherent in nature was born.

Today, in the United States, the power to convict is exclusively in the hands of the people. When you hear the words “The People of the State of Michigan vs. Person X,” as you will in every criminal matter in the state courts, it literally means that the two adverse parties in the case are Person X and all of the citizens of the state. We elect prosecutors to represent the populace, and they are our servants in exercising the will of the people to prove beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the defendant. We elect judges as referees, but every criminal defendant facing incarceration is still entitled to a jury of his peers to determine his fate. We require a unanimous verdict amongst these jurors because it is only when assured that no reasonable person construing the evidence of the case could legitimately doubt the guilt of the defendant that we as the people may deprive that defendant of his or her rights as a member of our community.

Every defendant is furthermore entitled to an attorney to ensure a fair fight in the process. When it’s one person against the entire population, it becomes pretty easy for the population to manipulate the system in its favor. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution provide protection to the lonely defendant against that tendency. However, the Constitution is pretty densely worded and the legal interpretation of it is constantly in flux. As a defense attorney, my role is to enforce those protections and make sure that my client gets a fair shot, regardless of his or her guilt.

If the justice system is compromised, if we allow the population to overstep their constitutional boundaries even one time, then the fabric of our entire social union unravels. If the scales of justice become imbalanced, we are all at risk. If one-hundred guilty defendants walk free, then we must fix the inefficiencies of our law enforcement. If one innocent defendant is shackled, then all innocent people are exposed to the oppression of an unjust sovereign. By instituting a burden of reasonable doubt into our criminal justice procedure, those that drafted the Constitution that I was sworn to protect implicitly stated such. And that is how I can live with myself when I know that my client is guilty.

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