Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Being a Criminal Defense Lawyer

People often ask me how I can defend criminals. Some of our clients are accused of some pretty serious crimes. And not all of our clients are innocent. I have had clients tell me in the first interview, "I did it. It was stupid of me and I feel terrible about it." What should a good lawyer do in that kind of situation?

I never imagined that I would be a criminal defense attorney when I graduated law school. I thought I would be a real estate lawyer. One of my first jobs after law school was as a criminal prosecutor for Salt Lake City. I never thought I would be on the other side of criminal prosecution.

But I believe that we all have certain rights. The Constitution guarantees us all the right to remain silent, the right to a trial by an impartial jury, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. Even if a person is guilty of the crime, they have those rights. In our system, the prosecutor bears the responsibility of proving the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor cannot do that, the accused are acquitted even if they committed the crime of which they are accused.

During my first meeting with a client, I will often say something like, "You are hiring me to help protect your legal rights. I will tell you what your legal options are. But, you may want to talk to someone else that you trust about your moral obligations. If you have a clergy person that you trust, you may want to talk to them."

Our nation was founded by people who believed that these rights are so important, everyone should have them even if they have done terrible things. John Adams defended British soldiers who were accused of killing five unarmed colonists in the Boston Massacre. None of the other lawyers in the area would defend the men because the colonies were so incensed by what they had done. Adams wanted to have a political career, but he accepted the call to be their criminal defense attorney even thought he believed it would be political suicide. David McCullough records in his biography, John Adams that Adams wrote this about his defense of the British soldiers: "It was . . . one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country." He believed that sentencing the soldiers to death without a fair trial would have been "as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently." Fortunately, this case did not end Adams' political career and he went on to be president of the United States.

I add my declaration to John Adams'. If we punished criminal defendants without fair trials, we would place a foul stain upon this country. I treasure the liberty that is protected by the United States Constitution and I feel privileged to assert its protections in defense of the accused.


Larry Reeves Photo said...

Great post, Josh! I had no idea what you were up to...this was a great read. I've often wondered what it would be like to be a defense attorney...you're a brave soul. Have a great day!

Tyler said...

While I'm impressed with your accomplishments and your conviction to what you do I have to disagree with the concept of a "fair" trial for people who confess their guilt. I think that if someone did it and confesses to it then the proper sentence should be served and the next case brought forth. Leaving it up to the prosecutor to prove them guilty seems to be putting the safety of innocent people who may suffer if the criminal were to repeat his/her offense on the line. What if the prosecutor is having an off day? What if they don't find the evidence they need? Should a confessed criminal walk because the prosecutor was a slightly below average student? I'm saddened that the "rights" of these criminals are put ahead of the rights of society as a whole.
I'd love to hear your point of view on this particular aspect.

Joshua Baron said...


You make a good point. As a society we have to balance the rights of individual defendants against our desire to be safe as a society. Reasonable people could disagree, but I think we have struck a fairly good balance.

It is important to remember, though, that the rights we offer to criminal defendants are rights that protect everyone. Not everyone who is charged with a crime is guilty. According to The Innocence Project, 245 people have been exonerated by DNA testing after they were wrongly convicted. www.innocenceproject.org.

It is reasonable to argue that guilty people have a moral obligation to confess what they've done, but they do not have a legal obligation to do so.

Does your comment refer to a moral obligation to confess or a legal obligation? If my brother committed a crime, I might tell him something different from what I tell my clients because my role is much different in that situation. But my post really only deals with a person's legal obligations and rights.

Our legal system tries to place a higher priority on preventing the conviction of innocent people than on punishing every person who commits a crime.

The rights of criminal defendants protect the guilty as well as the innocent.

Tyler said...

Thanks for the response, it helped me see more clearly the importance of having a good legal system in place and more importantly good people in the right positions to make sure that the law works the way it was designed to.
It seems like it would be so hard to defend someone that privately told you they are guilty. I probably wouldn't last long in your shoes.
On the flip side I'm sure you get to have some incredible experiences defending those who have been wrongly accused.
I have a lot of respect for the dedication and hard work that you've committed yourself to.
I'll be interested to follow your blog and learn more about the ins and outs of law.

Joshua Baron said...

I appreciate your comments, Tyler.

Janey said...

Thank you so much for posting this because I know a lot of people that believe these "criminals" shouldn't get any representation. The thing that makes our country so worth living in, though, is the fact that everyone gets equal rights and that includes the right to a fair trial with a criminal defense lawyer Utah and other states can provide.

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