Why Don't Defense Lawyers Seek Justice?

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.

They asked me to talk about my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer over the years and about my new book, “Reprisal.”

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.

Surprise you?

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.

This entry was posted in courts, defendants, Writing and tagged , , , by Colin Nelson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.


Why Don't Defense Lawyers Seek Justice? — 2 Comments

  1. So if a peosecutor finds that a defendant is innocent, according to statement above, he ir she has a duty to dismiss case. So if a defense attorney finds out person is guilty, should he still want this person free. And has defense attorney ever gotten a person acquitted who then once free re offends??? Maybe even takes another life??

    • Good questions! Most defense lawyers can separate their personal feelings from their professional duty to a client. There have been many cases where I knew the client was guilty, secretly hoped the jury would agree with me, but still had to provide a zealous defense—-which means I challenge the state’s case against the client. Defense lawyers never argue that their clients are “innocent.” Instead, we say the government hasn’t proved the client guilty. What do you think? Colin

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