Today’s topic: defense lawyers and why Gideon v. Wainwright was a crucial decision. Or, why Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly should have good defense lawyers—and so should everyone else.
- I am not an attorney, simply a layperson who’s a bit of a law geek, and willing to be taught if I have missed a point of law.
- This is not legal advice. If you or someone you know has a legal issue, consult a local attorney.
- Laws and practices vary from state to state and nation to nation. I am speaking of the US broadly.
Next to the defendants in a court case, the individuals who usually receive the most vilification by the public are their defense attorneys. The duty—the calling—of a criminal defense lawyer is to ensure that their client receives a fair trial—that all the evidence is brought forward, that witnesses are testifying truthfully and they are not under duress, that the evidence is pertinent, and more. Period. It is not their job to decide whether their client is guilty or innocent (that is up to the jury; or the judge, in a bench trial), what sentence they may receive, how hard to work to defend them, or if they should be defended at all. Every client is deserving of a fair trial, and of the very best their attorney can give them.
This is not too difficult if the person accused can afford to pay an attorney, especially if they can afford a well-known, expert attorney. Such attorneys generally have lots of resources, including support staff, investigators, and more; and they can choose which cases to take.
However, if the person accused cannot afford to pay an attorney, then they turn (in the U.S.) to public defenders. The U.S. Supreme Court, in their decision Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) ruled that if a person charged with a felony cannot afford an attorney, adequate and competent representation must be provided to them. In many places, the public defenders (PDs) are employed by the local government (federal PDs also exist) to supply representation to these individuals. In other places, private attorneys are appointed on a case-by-case basis by the court, as needed. Typically, PDs are paid much less than private lawyers (and so are private attorneys appointed to act as PDs); their office also frequently has less funding for investigations, mitigation reports, and so on than the prosecutor’s office. And it is axiomatic that the PD’s office is chronically understaffed.
And yet, perhaps because of that sense of calling, most PDs I have known have been incredibly dedicated, working beyond what is expected, carrying caseloads no private attorney would even consider, pouring heart and soul into trying their very best for their clients. Are their clients grateful? Some of them. Are their clients innocent? Some of them. Are their clients found innocent? Rarely. Can they manage a plea deal to reduce the sentence for their client? Frequently, because it is often the easiest and fastest way to resolve a case (but not necessarily the best).
Thing is, once the process has come as far as formal charges, a grand jury has found there’s enough evidence for a trial. It’s difficult to avoid trial after that, and even more difficult to be found innocent at that trial. All defense attorneys have an uphill battle from the start, although the assumption is that a person is “innocent until proven guilty.” But the legal process is quite complex, and ever changing; all kinds of things can happen and may happen, and do happen. And that’s precisely why people need defense attorneys—to make sure that assumption of innocence is maintained, and that they have a guide through the complicated legal system. “Innocent until proven guilty” should not be an empty phrase.
A fair trial that follows legal procedure—this is what a defense lawyer ensures for their client. We may be uncomfortable with it when that client is someone we feel is clearly guilty of a terrible crime—but we have to do our best to keep the legal system fair for everyone. I am well aware it’s not—the fact that we have a two-tier system of defense practice is evidence of that. But while we have this system, we need to work to maintain its integrity. If we don’t insist on a proper defense for the people we think are despicable, we don’t have a legitimate legal system, it’s as simple as that. The rule of law applies to all, even people we fear and dislike, perhaps especially to them.
All spiritual traditions that I am aware of contain some form of the requirement to treat others as we would like to be treated; “Love the Holy One your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.”
All defendants, no matter the charges against them, are our neighbors.
Rev. Martha Daniels serves at Holy Covenant MCC in Brookfield, IL. She is active in spiritual advocacy with people who are incarcerated, and is currently working on a project “Until We Are All Free: Spiritual Advocacy with LGBTQ+ Prisoners” (supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute).
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