How Can You?
Recently, I assumed the role as a defense attorney for John Walker Lindh in
a mock trial. John Walker Lindh is an American Citizen who was caught and arrested
in a prison uproar in Afghanistan. He has been accused of joining Taliban forces
in arms against the U.S. He has also been charged with conspiracy to murder
U.S. Nationals; conspiracy to provide material support and resources to international
terrorist organizations; contributing services to al-Queda; and using and carrying
firearms and destructive devices during crimes of violence. With this extensive
list of charges and John Walker Lindh being the first arrested as an 'American
Taliban', almost every person in the United States is presuming him guilty.
In a situation like this, people ask and I thought about it myself, how can
you/I defend a guilty person? This is a question defense attorneys are asked
all the time.
Trying to understand this situation I have tried to compare it to my life. One example I can think of is that I deliver pizza for a local pizza store. I work two or three nights a week and frequently deliver to the same customers and to a point, I remember who they are. When I remember who they are, I also remember what type of a tipper they are. Some people don't give me a tip at all and some give me a very small tip. Though it makes me angry and I don't want to deliver to that person, I have to do it, because that's the job. This is how I view someone that is guilty or presumed to be guilty. I have no choice and don't want to do a bad job, so I do it. This is the same with defense attorneys.
So, how do the defense attorneys really do it? Every person accused of a crime is entitled to a fair trial, and the defense attorney is a dedicated professional who has sworn an oath to uphold the law and to legitimately ensure this is what happens. The defense attorneys' job is sometimes misunderstood. It is not their job to decide in advance whether the accused is guilty. To quote an English Law Lord of the last century, "A man's rights are to be determined by the court, not by his attorney or counsel. It is for want of remembering this that foolish people object lawyers that they will advocate a case against their opinions. A client is entitled to say to his counsel, I want your advocacy, not your judgement; I prefer that of the court." If the prosecution can not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt (possibly because there is simply not enough evidence, or because the evidence was obtained illegally by the police), then the accused person is entitled to be acquitted, no matter how much everyone may suspect he or she is guilty. According to Stephen Jones, defense attorney for Timothy McVeigh, he is the Oklahoma lawyer people love to hate. When asked, "Why did you take on this case?", he replied, "I have, throughout my professional career, believed it was a lawyer's duty to defend unpopular cases". Stephen Jones has had a career of high controversial cases.
Richard Hustard Miller, attorney at law, agrees that criminal defense law is misunderstood. His short answer to the question, "how can you defend a guilty person?", is that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty and until that time must receive zealous advocacy. It is not his job to determine the defendant guilty or innocent. Those expected to determine if a crime has been committed are the people, represented by the jury. Their function is to determine guilt or innocence according to the law, not their own morality. The jury is to make their decision based on the evidence presented and the arguments made by the opposing attorneys. His job is to present the most effective case possible in opposition to the prosecution.
The jury needs to hear all sides thoroughly and completely before determining
whether a crime has been committed.
Juanita Brooks, a defense attorney, says when she is asked the question, she usually walks away and if they won't let her, she gives her honest reason. She says, "I am not the one that makes the judgement about whether the person is guilty or not. My role as a criminal defense lawyer is to keep the system honest. Either a judge or jury will or my client will make the determination."
Mario Conte, head of the Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc., says turning the question around is his way to answer the question. He says, "If you had a loved one, who for whatever reason committed a crime, would you ask their lawyer that same question? Would you say, how can you do that?" He says that is second favorite answer is that he loves it. Sometimes another question similar to the same arises; What if you know the client is guilty? Richard Miller, attorney at law, says that a defense attorney should never ask the question if he is guilty or allow them to confess to them. It is not the defense attorney's job to determine if the crime has been committed. To do so is a substitution of the values of the defense attorney in the place of the jury's determination of a legal conclusion and undermines the search for justice within the system. The most zealous advocacy of a client's position cannot be attained when the defense attorney is morally troubled in an attempt to judge the client.
Timothy S. Coyne, defense attorney, says, "How can I NOT defend someone, especially when they are guilty?" The U.S. constitution guarantees everyone with a criminal offense certain rights, such as the right not to incriminate oneself, the right to a trial by jury, the right to be represented by an attorney, and the right to have the government prove one's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Once guilt or innocence has been resolved, the work really begins. Sentencing in a criminal case is a balancing act. The court must balance the need for punishment and deterrence against the need to rehabilitate. The state weighs in through the prosecutor whose answer is usually to jail or the penitentiary. A defense attorney asks for leniency. The court must decide on a sentence that is fair not only to the state and public, but to the defendant as well.
Another fact that arises when the defendant has been found guilty is to determine what they are guilty of. In a case of marijuana, are they guilty of possession, sale, or use of marijuana? With alcohol, are they guilty of a minor in possession, or selling to a minor? There are several grades of assault: simple assault, aggravated assault, felonious assault, or merely self-defense. For every offense, there is a different level of punishment. It is up to the defense attorney to make sure his client won't be given a harsher punishment than deserved for the crime committed.
After reviewing everything that the defense attorney does, if asked again, "would I defend a guilty person?", I would say yes. Everyone has rights, even if they are found guilty. If my client were found guilty, then I would do everything to see that the punishment fit the crime and is not harsher. John Walker Lindh's real attorneys has a long and hard battle ahead to prove him innocent, but at least they will see that if found guilty, the punishment will not be worse than it should be and that justice will be served.