You don’t have to read a dozen newspapers a day or be glued to the internet to get exposed to opinions on every topic under the sun. As an attorney that routinely tries criminal and DUI cases which are decided by juries, I have a particular interest in the opinions of the public about persons charged with crimes and the lawyers that defend them. My (unscientific) study tells me that a large percentage of people think that a person charged with an offense is probably guilty, and that the lawyers representing them are unctuous bottom feeders. Most recently, I read a comment about a situation one of our fine ex-governors from Illinois has gotten himself into, in which the commenter said, “His sleazy lawyer is just trying to get him off."
As a “sleazy" defense attorney, I took exception to the comment, but that type of talk is hardly rare. Regretfully, many people have that same negative opinion of defense attorneys, thinking that we are protecting criminals and putting them back on the street to do more damage. To the contrary, we are defenders of the constitution. Why do you think Lady Justice is blindfolded while she holds the scales of justice? Because it's not supposed to matter who is being judged. Our founding mothers and fathers of our great nation got it right when they created our judicial system. They realized that when someone is charged with a serious offense and their freedom and liberty were at risk, we need a system of checks and balances. That is why, in a criminal trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and the defendant is presumed innocent. The system is designed with the ideal that it is better to let 100 guilty people go free than wrongly convict even one innocent person. However, the system only works if there is a competent defense attorney aggressively challenging the prosecution's case. Thankfully, our justice system doesn't rely on the honesty of prosecuting attorneys, police officers, and other witnesses to fairly decide who is guilty or not. The prosecutor gets to present the state's evidence to support the charge to the jury, but it doesn't stop there. That's where the defense attorney comes in to challenge the state's evidence, primarily through a process called cross examination. That’s when the hard questions get asked. And because Lady Justice doesn't care whether it is Charles Manson or Mother Theresa who's freedom is in jeopardy, neither do the best defense attorneys.
It's certainly not easy for an attorney to keep fighting when the prosecution's evidence seems insurmountable, or the defendant has a rap sheet 10 feet long, or the offense is a heinous crime, or the public is decrying our efforts; but we persevere, because it is our job, it is our passion, and our commitment to defending the constitution demands nothing less. You've heard about those who have been wrongly convicted and spent decades in prison? That's what our forefathers were trying desperately to avoid when they drafted that radical document called The Constitution.
So the next time you feel like your freedom is being impinged, or think our constitution is being toppled over, thank a defense attorney, because we're in the trenches, battling to prop it back up.