September 11, 2001.
I am sitting behind a table in a big classroom waiting for my criminal law class to begin. It is only my fourth day of law school. I am still in shock, wide eyed, surrounded by incredibly smart people, and honestly a little unsure of my decision to try and become an attorney. In addition, I have just arrived at school after having watched the news of the horrific events that took place in our country earlier that morning. I’m not even sure why I went to class that day, but in retrospect, it is probably because I felt the need to speak to my peers, console one another, and try and make sense out of what happened. Little did I know, I was going to be challenged to view the events through the eyes of what I would eventually become; a criminal defense lawyer.
Right on cue as class was about to begin, our professor walks through the door, and down the stairs to the front of the class to the white board. Without looking up at us, or acknowledging us at all for that matter, he begins writing. When he is finished he turns back around and walks out of the classroom, never uttering a word. Confused I turn back towards the front of the class to read the following written in all capitol letters:
“WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF IT WAS YOUR JOB TO DEFEND THE PEOPLE THAT DID THIS?”
It sent a tingle down my spine. Then, as we all looked around the room in disbelief, I slowly started to let the gravity of the question wash over me.
So, what IS the answer to this question? The truth is, this very poignant question, asked to a class full of scared future-attorney-hopefuls, has developed into a question that I get almost every time someone asks me what I do for a living . . .
How Can You Defend Someone You Know Is Guilty?
The easy answer is this – as a criminal defense attorney, it is my job to represent people that are accused of crimes, regardless of it they are guilty or innocent. This is what I hear most attorneys who practice in this arena say in response to the question.
While this is the truth, for me it is much more than that. Every attorney, no matter the practice area or specialization, wields a certain amount of power that most people don’t have. This is just a reality and part of the reason we take our oath to do what is right, just, and good when we are sworn in as lawyers. (If you would like to actually take a look at the official oath click here).
I believe this power comes from the the influence that we can and do have on our clients’ lives. A prosecutor has the power to charge a person with a crime, thereby possibly taking away their freedom. A family law attorney might be responsible for taking someones child away from them, or getting their child back. A personal injury attorney is often the only thing an injured person can count on to make sure their financial needs are taken care of after an accident.
Sure, as a criminal defense attorney it is my job to advocate and fight for my clients against criminal charges levied against them. Many of them would tell you that they hire me because they believe I can keep them out of jail. These things are both true; however, over my years of practice I have learned to develop a much greater understanding of what I do and why I do it.
I love being an attorney. I love fighting for my clients. I am good at what I do. I also truly believe that most people are inherently good. The overwhelming majority of my clients over the years have really been good people who simply made bad mistakes.
Far greater than these obvious sentiments about my job, I have also learned that I have a greater responsibility. While I am not what you would call a “civil rights” attorney, it surely is my job to fight for my clients’ rights and to ensure that those rights are not infringed upon throughout the judicial process.
Beyond advocating for the rights of the person in court with me on any given day, I AM ALSO ADVOCATING FOR THE RIGHTS OF ALL OF US. Big rights and little rights. This includes the rights we have under the Constitution of the United States, the rights that we have under the Washington State Constitution, individual cases that have set precedent and the individual laws that make up our criminal justice system.
It is a very slippery slope. I often feel like I am standing on a ledge fighting to keep those powers that I was discussing earlier in check for the benefit of us all. You see, it REALLY DOESN’T MATTER IF A PERSON IS GUILTY OR INNOCENT. What is important is that I do everything in my power to ensure that the process is fair and that rights are protected and upheld. That is what people on an individual basis really want and that is the cornerstone of our system on a much larger scale.
If my client can be taken advantage of by the powers that be, then it can happen to any of us. Next it might be a friend or a colleague. Some day it could even happen to my daughter.
THIS is how I answer the question when someone asks me how can I defend someone I know is guilty.
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Stryder J. Wegener is the author of this article, the co-founder of Emerald City Law Group, and a damn good criminal defense attorney.