This essay is closely related to yesterday’s post about the elderly defense lawyer who revealed in a memoir shortly before his death that the client he successfully defended against kidnapping charges in his most celebrated case was guilty. One commenter opined that it is unethical for a lawyer to defend a client whom the lawyer knows is guilty, which immediately reminded me to republish my explanation of this core element of legal ethics and the criminal justice from 2005. The commenter’s position is surprisingly common, even among law students. I’d bet that a majority of the American public is confused about the issue. That is more than a little scary, but it explains why, for example, the public was so blase about Derek Chauvin being convicted of murder under conditions that made fair trial virtually impossible. What follows is very slightly edited from the original version, which can be found here.
How can it be right for an attorney to defend in court an individual that he or she knows is guilty? The fact that so many Americans are perplexed by this after two centuries is an indictment of the legal profession, which has flunked its obligation to protect its role in protecting a crucial Constitutional right by making sure that it is understood by the pubic that right serves. About 20 years ago, then-Fox TV commentator Bill O’Reilly led a campaign to get California criminal lawyer Jeffrey Feldman disbarred because leaked plea bargaining sessions showed that he knew his client, child killer David Westerfield, was guilty of murder, even though Feldman was vigorously disputing his guilt in court. O’Reilly pronounced Feldman a liar. He was wrong, but his ignorance, in this matter at least, is excusable, but only because it so widespread.
To understand the criminal lawyer’s ethical responsibilities, begin with this: the Founders of the American republic believed that citizens in a fair and just society shouldn’t be imprisoned or punished just because the government decides they are guilty of something, whether it is murder, robbery, not paying taxes or, as with John Hancock and Samuel Adams, criticizing those in power. They wisely decided on a system that required the government to prove that an individual had committed a crime to the satisfaction of an unbiased jury. Not only that: they decided that a very high standard should be applied in determining legal guilt: “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or near certainty.
Why? Taking the cue from British legal scholar William Blackstone, who famously said that it was better to have ten criminals escape punishment than to have one innocent man imprisoned, uber-Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said that “ it is better one hundred guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” Achieving this ideal means keeping the government honest: no convictions based on false or planted evidence, unreliable or lying witnesses, or confessions extracted from the accused by torture, beatings, or other forms of duress even if the accused is, in fact guilty. All of that is essential for the system to work, if to work means “being fair and just.” If we permit the government to cheat in order to imprison a guilty individual, we have no way to stop it from cheating to imprison an innocent one. Indeed, it will be impossible to tell the difference.