In the midst of a flurry of wrongfully convicted black men finally given their freedom comes the perplexing saga of 78-year old Joseph Gorden, locked up in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility since 1993 for a murder he says he didn’t commit. But that, as they say, isn’t the half of it.
Last March, Gordon was denied his fifth application since since 2017, when he had served the minimum term of his sentence of 25 years to life in prison. The reason he is still incarcerated is simple: he refuses to express remorse for the 1991 murder of a white Westchester County doctor, because Gordon insists that he is innocent. Usually a parole board will not waive the remorse requirement, which—and this is not the ethics quiz!– presents a classic ethical conflict for defense lawyers.
A lawyer cannot advise a client to lie. That is a bright-line professional ethics edict of long-standing. A lawyer is also required to defend a client’s rights and fight for his or her interests as zealously as possible. Would you, as a lawyer, convinced of your client Joseph Gordon’s innocence, advise him to express remorse to the parole board, which would require a false acceptance of the jury’s verdict? Many lawyers have done exactly this, and would argue that they did the right thing. Their bar associations and courts would almost certainly disagree.
I digress, however; sorry. That problem has always fascinated me. My favorite version is when the lawyer knows the convicted client is not guilty because another one of his clients has confessed to the murder, a confidence that the lawyer cannot ethically reveal.