On Criminal Defense Work and Plea Bargains
In Left for Dead (8th daily dose of Florida Rescue Mission) I tell about getting mugged on the day I passed the bar exam and how that didn’t deter me from being a criminal defense lawyer.
Defending those accused of criminal behavior has never bothered me because:
(a) growing-up I could recite verbatim Anatole France’s 1894 quote “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread;”
(b) in high school my dad had me read Clarence Darrow’s 1902 Address to the Prisoners in the Cook County Jail about crime, what causes it, who writes the laws and defines what is and what isn’t a crime, and why real criminals almost never go to prison;
(c) as a college hooligan my motto was “Just because you’re not totally straight, doesn’t make you a crook;”
(d) as a law student I took to heart the logic of a workable criminal justice system: It’s not a lawyer’s job to decide guilt or innocence (which would happen if lawyers didn’t take cases when they thought their client probably guilty) – that’s for the juries – your job is to make sure there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt;
(e) as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said, “Under our system of justice it’s better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted;”
(f) in my 30s I realized how true it is that the person you are in your teens is not always the person you are in your 20s and 30s – which is why we don’t impose the death penalty on juveniles;
(g) and, of course, once accused you develop a quick appreciation for the presumption of innocence.
So I never had any qualms about being a criminal defense lawyer, but as a brand new attorney I remember being asked on a date, “If I were violently raped, beaten-up really bad, how could you defend that kind of a monster?!”
The real test of my believing in our criminal justice system came when an accused rapist asked me to defend him. I was still in my first year of being a lawyer, working out of my apartment on Sherburne Avenue – saving money to rent an actual office – when my mailman friend Bert brought the mail in and asked if I would represent his step-son Harrison accused of rape, still sitting in jail.
“Well, at least let me go visit him and get his story,” I said.
Harrison told me Julie, the woman he was accused of raping, was a young single mom who lived in his apartment building, a friend he thought, who regularly threw a party on the first of the month when she got her AFDC check – and was always willing to have sex on multiple occasions during the course of the “party.” This last time, around midnight, Harrison and a buddy, Latrelle, walked with her to the nearby football stadium and had a threesome in the middle of the field. Then they walked her home and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. A half hour later there was a knock on the door and it was the police to arrest him.
Tomorrow: Plea Bargaining – Another Part of our Criminal Justice System