How do you represent a guilty client?
It’s one of the more common criminal defense questions, asked by unintentionally self-righteous friends and family who have never been confined within the concrete and steel of a jail cell.
Most people don’t understand why a criminal defense lawyer does what they do, and, after they ask and I explain, they still don’t understand why a criminal defense lawyer does what they do.
Odds are, after reading this, you may not understand either. That’s okay, I guess – when you find yourself on the wrong side of the law, or your family member gets arrested and locked in a cage, then you might understand…
What Does “Guilty” Even Mean?
How do you represent a guilty client?
Well, who is guilty? How do you know? And, what does guilty mean?
History is full of people who have “confessed” to crimes they did not commit, either due to mental illness or because of overzealous law enforcement who “got a confession” from an innocent person.
What if the evidence proves that my client is guilty? Does it really? I have seen, over and over, cases where the evidence tends to prove guilt, but things are not always what they seem.
Okay, okay. What if the evidence proves that my client is guilty, my client tells me they are guilty, and I am convinced that they are, in fact, guilty? Do I care?
What does guilty mean? In some cases, we are not fighting the conviction so much as we are fighting the consequences. If a person steals food three times from a grocery store, do they deserve to go to prison? The Horry County Solicitors’ Office thinks so. I don’t.
If a person shoots another person in the head, and they are so damaged that they would probably shoot another person in the head if given the opportunity, do they deserve to go to prison? Maybe so, if it’s proven and the evidence is rigorously tested.
What about the guy that was standing next to him? The hand of one is the hand of all – if my client was a “look-out” for a burglary, done in desperation in the throes of a heroin addiction, and the crazy guy that went into the house shoots someone without my client’s knowledge, does my client also deserve a life sentence for murder?
Maybe you can understand how I represent innocent clients. Maybe you understand how I represent clients who might be innocent. You might even understand how I represent clearly guilty clients who have been over-charged or who are facing unfair punishments.
What about the worst of the worst – the client who probably has committed the most horrific crimes that would shock the conscience of even the most battle-hardened defense lawyers?
How Do You Represent the Worst Clients?
For example, how could an attorney represent a person who raped, tortured, and murdered a child?
Some attorneys don’t. Can’t or won’t. That’s okay.
I can find something to love in all my clients – most of them are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and need help.
Some clients walk into my office with dump trucks full of mitigation – they have loving families, they volunteer in the community, they support their children… there is always something redeeming about every person who walks into my office, and that helps. For some, you may just have to look a bit harder to find it.
I have two answers for “how do you represent the worst clients.” First, my job is to win their case – it doesn’t matter what they are accused of having done. There is a trained attorney on the other side trying to put them in prison, or even trying to kill them. The only way to find the truth is to have a trained, determined advocate on both sides of the case.
Second, I am protecting yours and my own right to a defense. Think about it – if we don’t give the best possible defense to the worst possible defendants, the same can happen to you and me and our loved ones.
On the other hand, if we provide the best, most aggressive defense to the worst of the worst, we can rest assured that you and I will be given the same benefit of the doubt and the same defense if the day comes when we are accused of committing a horrendous crime, guilty or not.
A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Job is to Win Their Client’s Case
I’ve heard many different answers from criminal defense attorneys as to how they represent a guilty client – it’s their job, they are defending the Bill of Rights, they are an honest broker between the defendant and the government… no.
A criminal defense lawyer’s job is to win their client’s case using every means legally and ethically possible.
Yes, there are cases where a negotiated guilty plea is in a client’s best interest. There are cases where pretrial intervention is the best possible outcome. But, first and foremost, a defense lawyer’s job is to win with a dismissal or an acquittal whenever possible and when their client agrees.
I Don’t Represent My Client, I Represent the Constitution
What a load of bullsh**.
You don’t represent the Constitution. You represent a living, breathing person whether you agree with what they did or not.
You insist on enforcing your client’s constitutional rights. You file motions to dismiss and motions to suppress evidence for violation of your client’s constitutional rights. But you don’t represent the Constitution – that’s a bullsh** excuse you give to people who don’t understand why you would represent a guilty person.
Jurors (and prosecutors and judges – the decision maker at any given time) need to see my client and hear my client’s story before they could possibly want to help my client. “I represent the Constitution” is great if I’m in a hearing on a motion to suppress evidence, but, at every other point in the case, it’s not enough.
I’m Just a Broker, Like a Go-Between for the Government and Defendants
Sound ridiculous? I’ve had criminal defense attorneys tell me that their job is a “broker” between their clients and the government.
Every case is a guilty plea – it’s just a matter of finding an agreement that both sides will agree to. No.
Criminal defense lawyers are not simply brokers between two parties – this is not a civil dispute that will end in one side paying financial compensation to the other. It’s a struggle between a human being and an all-powerful government that is trying to take away their life, their freedom, their family, their future, their livelihood, and their reputation with a criminal conviction.
Your job is not “broker.” It’s “win your client’s case.”
How Do You Represent an Innocent Client?
You know what’s truly terrifying?
Representing a client that you know is innocent in a case where the government is convinced they are guilty. What keeps me up at night? The thought that an innocent person might go to prison one day because I didn’t do my job.
Maybe, the people asking, with horror on their face, “how could you represent a guilty person,” should instead be asking, with horror on their face, “how could you represent an innocent person?”
Criminal Defense Attorney in Myrtle Beach, SC
Daniel A. Selwa is a criminal defense attorney in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Call now at (843) 492-5449 or send an email to speak with a SC criminal defense lawyer in Myrtle Beach today.