I was recently contacted by a friend from law school. I haven't seen nor heard from him in close to 4 years. He was quietly one of the top students in my class. I say quietly because he wasn't pompous, elitist, or self-important. And like me, he's a "down-stater." We are humble folk, if nothing else.
After graduation my friend went back down state. He works at a law firm, but I don't know which one. And until a couple of days ago I had no idea he did criminal defense work.
He wrote to me about a post of mine from last week. I was shocked to learn people might actually read this blog. Anyway, something about that post struck a common chord with him, especially the part about defending a client you believe to be factually innocent.
He wrote that his son had recently asked him how he could defend someone who is guilty. He answered that it was easier to defend a guilty person because there is less pressure. While I realize that to be true, I have never thought about it that way, which is probably why he was a better student than myself. He thinks differently. Perhaps on a higher level. I don't know.
My reptilian brain has been tossing around that concept since I read it. Now that I have had a few days to think about it, I wanted to write a bit.
I have written in the past that I won't take a case of any seriousness unless I am pretty sure the client is innocent. Right now I have 2 murders, and 3 attempt murders (although 1 is just charged for being there while his buddy shot at a house). All 5 cases have good facts and minimal, if any, physical evidence.
If someone has inflicted great bodily harm, I don't want to be sitting next to the the guy that did it. As a staunch defender of the constitution, I do believe everyone is entitled to a defense, despite the crime. But right now, with my limited experience, I wouldn't feel comfortable taking a likely guilty case to trial.
I think I know how to win a case with good facts. I think I know how a case with close facts could be won. But I have no clue how to win a dog. I cannot yet weave gold from crap. And really, even if I did, I don't want to put murderers back on the street. I don't need the money that bad.
However, I do play a part in getting factually guilty people off in the name of the constitution. But I draw the line at violent crime. I sleep better at night, but not really. It is sometimes hard to sleep knowing you have an innocent client in jail. Right now, I have at least 5, so I sleep poorly most nights.
And this is where my friend and I have felt the same pressure. All of my clients, and their families, with the serious cases believe they will be found not guilty. Why? It's expected. Because that's what they are. Not guilty. They expect the justice system to work. They believe in the system.
Whether or not it's clearly stated, they must have faith in me. I think it's implied, as I am part of the system. But I don't think anyone is naive enough to blindly assume that just any old attorney will do. If they did, why hire private counsel? No, there must be belief in me. Why? Not sure.
If you never wonder if that belief might be misplaced, you're either Clarence Darrow's reincarnate or you never ask yourself the tough questions. I am not speaking about brooding on potential failure, but rather just being aware of the stakes. And your role. It's enormous.
You are your client's only fan who can put on his case. You may have witnesses and you may have evidence, but when the rubber meets the road, you're it. You are seen, correctly or not, as being the only obstacle attempting to frustrate the government's undying effort to lock up your client for life. Again, you're it.
This belief in me is palpable. I can smell it. I can hear it. I can taste it. And it causes a lot of stress and anxiety. If I fail, the system fails. Or so it would seem.
These clients are all looking at decades of prison time and for some, it's tantamount to a life sentence. For some reason all of these people placed the burden of preventing a life of imprisonment on me. My experience level, or lack thereof, was fully disclosed to all of them.
The universal response from the mothers of all of these clients is "I just want you to help my son. I want someone to represent him that will care."
How do you say "no" to that? I can't. I may be short on experience but I bring an endless supply of caring. I care too much and at times, it's a personal liability.
I also have a soft spot for distraught mothers. Grandmothers are even worse. All grandmothers love their grandsons unconditionally. "Well, he's really a good kid but just did something stupid."
And here's the one that gets me every time and I hear it a lot "Jesus brought you to us for a reason, it's in God's hands now. You will be fine, baby." What do you do with that? You can't decline to handle a case if you were sent by Jesus, with God's approval.
I am only half-kidding. To some of you that may seem a bit silly or misguided, but my people actually believe it to be true. And, it might just be. Who am I to say? I am not going to argue with them. If they feel better by thinking a higher power is involved, then so be it. And again, they might be right.
After my guilty verdict last week, both my client's crying mother and girlfriend hugged me and said "thank you." "For what? We lost" I said. "But you cared and fought for him. You gave him a chance."
If I stop and think about the ramifications and possible outcomes of some of my current cases, it causes a brief, but massive panic attack. So, I try not to do it and just focus on the case and remind myself that I will know the facts better than my opponent.
If you have a beating heart, an ounce of empathy, and maybe a dash of compassion, some of my cases would eat at you. You also would not sleep well.
But you might be motivated more than you ever have been in your entire life. You might even feel like you have a purpose. And a purpose, is quite a thing.
I don't represent those who can afford to hire an attorney, I zealously defend those who can't afford not to hire an attorney.