During my career as a criminal defense lawyer, I have represented hundreds of people charged with serious crimes. From time to time, the nature of a particular case and/or its outcome will come to the attention of Mahoning Matters and other media. I know this is going to come as a shock, but I’m always ready to answer questions and provide feedback for Fourth Estate members.
When I do and my mug ends up in the paper or on TV, I’m invariably approached by people asking, “How can you portray murderers, rapists, drug dealers, child molesters and (insert another type of crime) and watch you? in the miror? You should be ashamed.”
In most cases – most being when the person asking the question isn’t too belligerent – I offer a multi-part answer that’s similar to how I construct a defense in a criminal trial.
First, I note that at the time I agree to represent a client, he is innocent of all charges and will remain so unless and until a prosecutor convinces a jury or judge that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – our legal system’s highest standard of proof. Although the presumption of innocence is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, it has been enshrined in American case law since 1895 when the Supreme Court majority in Coffin v. US wrote:
“The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the incontestable, axiomatic and elementary law, and its application is the basis of the administration of our criminal law.”
I then point out that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution guarantee that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process”, and that the Sixth establishes the right of anyone facing prosecution for a crime to obtain “…the assistance of an attorney for his defence.
This means that I uphold the Constitution, carry out the mandates established by the Founding Fathers, and protect the rights of every American whenever I represent a defendant.
I then say that I have an ethical obligation to represent my client diligently, to demand that prosecutors fulfill their responsibilities, including their duty to seek and obtain justice – not just convictions – to ensure that the laws and rules of evidence have been applied correctly during each phase of criminal proceedings, and to file appeals when and if errors occur and result in unjust or wrongful convictions.
At this point, I’m ready to offer my summary: Organizing the best possible defense on behalf of those accused of heinous acts strengthens and legitimizes our justice system.
This is something the United States and our allies understood when they conducted the Nuremberg trials after World War II. They allowed the Nazi defendants, many of whom were among the most loathsome figures to ever darken the Earth, to retain the services of highly competent attorneys and raise any questions they chose during the proceedings. When the court concluded, the world knew that the process had been fair and the verdicts just.
The principle is no less important today. Our faith in the system rests on the belief that ultimately justice has been served. The fact that I play such a vital role in strengthening that faith makes me proud to be a lawyer – and it’s easy to face the mirror every morning before I go to court.