How important is it for me to believe in my client's innocence?
Throughout my career, I have gotten a number of questions time and time again that used to feel like they are meant as attacks: "How can you sleep at night representing 'those people'?" "What if you know your client is guilty?" "Don't you feel bad getting criminals back out in the community?" and so on. I no longer interpret these questions as attacks. I now view them as an expression of genuine curiosity, because the reality is not anyone could do what I do and people often are, for lack of a better word, 'impressed' that I can. I could write a separate blog post for each of the questions above, but I actually want to focus on the one that is the title of this post, How important is it for me to believe in my client's innocence? By the way, my short answers to the questions above are: very well, especially in the winter time under my weighted blanket; then it would make little sense to take that client's case to trial if it can be avoided; if anyone should feel bad, it's the people whose job it is to keep criminals out of our community.
I recently was having a first client meeting and the client stopped the meeting to ask me precisely how important it is for me to believe my client is innocent in order for me to be able to do my job. I gave my client a smile and explained that to me the question of my client's guilt or innocence is not at all a factor in my doing my job. From his face, it was clear that my answer left him with less clarity, so I continued with my explanation. I will do my best to recreate that explanation here for you, my dear readers.
As a criminal defense attorney, I am what is called "stated interest counsel," as opposed to best interest counsel. Examples of best interest counsel are people serving as guardian ad litem to their Client, which is usually reserved for situations where the client lacks the mental competency to express their interests leaving their attorney with the obligation of acting in what the attorney feels is in the client's best interest. Conversely, stated interest counsel acts to pursue the stated interest of the client. So when a client wants to fight the charges, my job is to do that. If a client wants to resolve the case through a plea, my job is to pursue that outcome. When my client wants to plead guilty to the charges as they stand, my job is to facilitate that (after trying very hard to make sure the client understands that they do not have to do that). You should notice that nowhere in this paragraph have I said that what I do depends on whether or not I believe my client is innocent. I actually make it a point to not ask my clients whether or not they are innocent because practically no good comes from that conversation. I have said it before and I am sure I will say it again, there is nothing more stressful than representing a client that you believe is innocent. Some attorneys call the factually innocent clients "unicorns" because fortunately, they are so rare. The system, for all of its flaws, does not often turn its sights on people who were truly engaged in absolutely no criminal behavior. However, that does happen and that fact is what enables me to argue my clients' innocence in any case where that is what my client states he or she wants.
Now, to be clear, part of my job is assessing the strength of the prosecution's case against my client and advising them accordingly. So even if my client wishes to fight the charges with a trial and argue absolute innocence, if the evidence does not support such an approach, I will be sure to tell my client. Fortunately, the defense has no burden of production or proof in the criminal setting, so I can argue for my client's innocence even if the evidence is overwhelming, because the burden of proof lies squarely with the prosecution, and the presumption of innocence applies. My client is presumed innocent up until the moment a jury declares that the state has met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt of my client's guilt.
I pride myself in giving my clients the very best representation regardless of whether or not I think they committed the crimes they are charged with. Our system depends on people knowing their roles and my role absolutely does not include assessing my client's guilt or innocence. I make 4 promises to anyone who has hired me or is planning on hiring me, and one of those promises is that I am not going to judge them. Here is literally what I say: "I promise you I am not going to judge you. I am not the judge, it is not my job. I sure as hell am not the prosecution. I am/will be your lawyer and my job is/will be to fight for you. Full stop."
I get that a lot of people are skeptical of the notion that a person could just declare that they will not judge someone regardless of the evidence and mean it. It isn't easy, but the job of a criminal defense attorney isn't easy. If you are ever looking for one, be sure to look for one who is up to such a hard task.