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.