Should criminal defense lawyers seek justice in court?
I had the wonderful opportunity the other week to be invited to speak to our local chapter of Sisters in Crime, a national writing group composed of both women and men dedicated to supporting mystery writers.
I was flattered to be invited and anxious to dispel a myth I think most Americans have about out criminal justice system.
I explained that the legal and ethical job of a prosecutor is to “seek justice.” In contrast, the legal and ethical duty of a defense lawyer is to “zealously represent and advocate for his client.” Notice there’s nothing mentioned about justice in the duties of a defense lawyer.
Of course, he may not do anything illegal, dishonest, or unethical to zealously advocate for a client, but seeking justice has nothing to do with his role.
Isn’t the purpose of the criminal justice system to find the truth, to find justice? That’s the name, the criminal justice system, after all!
That certainly is the goal of the system, but a defense lawyer has only one goal: to advocate for his client. And the truth is, in all the years I’ve represented criminal defendants, they rarely want justice.
They want to get off!!
Even if guilty, they want to be excused, to be given a second chance, to be dealt with in a lenient way…to get off somehow.
The beauty of the system is that the government is burdened with the job of proving someone they’ve accused of a crime guilty beyond a reasonable doubt–only if they can. The defense lawyer has to challenge that proof. Hopefully justice wins, but the defense lawyer has a critical role to play: checking the power of the government.
Many times, the only person standing against the government is the defense lawyer. So, it makes sense that his ethical duty is to do anything possible and legal to get the client off.
Does that make the defense lawyer a crook himself?
No, it’s the role devised years ago. And I can say from years of experience, it works well.
It also means that a prosecutor shouldn’t always work for a conviction and the maximum penalty for accused people. If the prosecutor learns during the case, for instance, that the accused is innocent or merely guilty of something less serious, the prosecutor has a duty to seek justice and dismiss the case or reduce its severity.
Should a defense lawyer have a different role?
Are too many criminals “getting off” as a result of clever defense lawyers?
Let me know what you think.