Defense Attorneys Should Not Be Punished For Doing Their Jobs

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi receiving his Vanguard Justice Award last November in Davis.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi receiving his Vanguard Justice Award last November in Davis.

By Jeff Adachi

The verdict is in: Criminal defense attorneys are being punished for doing their jobs.

Although we protect your constitutional rights in the justice system, we are clearly losing in the court of public opinion. It takes just a glance at recent news to see the ire runs deeper than a few lawyer jokes.

Following a month of controversy, Hillary Rodham Clinton this week defended her legal representation of an accused child rapist 40 years ago. “I asked to be relieved of that responsibility, but I was not, and I had a professional duty to represent my client to the best of my ability, which I did,” Clinton said.

In March, the U.S. Senate blocked the White House nomination of Debo Adegbile as assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Adegbile’s offense? While working for the NAACP, he was among lawyers who prepared a brief for Mumia Abu-Jamal, arguing that Abu-Jamal’s murder conviction was invalid because of racial discrimination in jury selection.

Our country’s third president, John Adams, faced the same public outrage in 1770, when, as a young defense lawyer, he agreed to defend British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre.

Adams risked infamy and even death, he would later write, for his belief in the presumption of innocence.

Why does being a defense attorney still threaten to torpedo a political career?

It’s no mystery. It comes from the same question I and other public defenders are often asked: “How can you defend those people?”

And while it is an understandable curiosity, it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how our system works.

In America’s adversarial criminal justice system, both the government and the accused have advocates that go head to head in court. A jury then determines the truth after hearing the evidence and arguments presented by each side. The burden of proof is necessarily high in a criminal case, because the accused’s life and liberty are at stake.

Prosecutors, with near unlimited resources and the full backing of the government, are trying to take away a citizen’s freedom. That’s a big deal, and something we want to get right.

The defense attorney’s role is to ensure that if someone is convicted of a crime, that conviction is justified by the evidence presented in court. This is true for both petty crimes as well as serious ones. Our system ensures that innocent people are not locked up based on flimsy accusations, and that everyone has an opportunity to have their day in court.

Defense attorneys safeguard against vigilantism, kangaroo courts and mob justice. They make sure police follow the Constitution when questioning suspects, gathering evidence and searching residences.

As a result, they have exposed flaws in the system, leading to better police practices and crime lab management. They have freed innocent people from death row and life sentences. They have protected against police and government abuse. That means fewer false confessions, mishandled evidence and illegal convictions. Ironically, the same defense attorneys we view with suspicion are largely the reason we can trust the system today.

For public defenders, defending “those people” is a matter of fairness The poor are more likely to be swept into the justice system than the rich and less likely to afford bail. Public defenders are fiercely dedicated to ensuring the rights of the poor are protected, oftentimes foregoing fame and fortune for the personal satisfaction of upholding the cause of equal justice. These constitutional warriors are undervalued, and public defender offices across the country continue to be underfunded and underappreciated.

Why? Because it isn’t politically expedient to fund representation for people accused of crimes.

It is time to look beyond the childlike thinking of good guys and bad guys. Both Clinton and Adegbile appear to have provided diligent and competent representation – something our legal system demands.

How can we be proud of our Constitution and justice system if we punish and discriminate against those who play a vital role in preserving it?

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco public defender and a board member of the California Public Defenders Association.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    “It is time to look beyond the childlike thinking of good guys and bad guys”

    And yet this is exactly the mentality that is framing the way in which our justice system operates in Yolo County.
    This was the exact phrase used over and over to justify certain practices that were questioned when I recently attended Yolo Counties Citizens Academy. This is a course offered in Yolo County as an introduction to the workings of local and regional law enforcement, attorneys and judges within our system.

    One of the principle impressions that I formed as a result of this class is the degree of lack of awareness of how deeply this attitude of “good guys vs bad guys” is embedded in the minds of our law enforcement and judicial officials. I heard justifications for law enforcement lying to obtain confessions, misleading witnesses both inadvertently and knowingly if they felt that was the only war to obtain the cooperation of a suspect or witness.
    I heard about compassion for the “victims of crime” but none at all for the family of the accused even if the person is ultimately acquitted. I heard lawyers say that their job is to convince the jury of their version of events…..not that their job is to arrive at the truth and ensure that the public is protected. It should not be forgotten that a false conviction leaves the real perpetrator free.

    I would go further than Mr. Adachi. I believe that it is time for us to move beyond our adversarial system of justice to a collaborative process in which the goal is to arrive at the actual sequence of events, presented dispassionately to a judge or jury whose job would be to evaluate the facts, not be swayed by the theatrics in their determination of innocence or guilt.

  2. tj

    The statement by Mr. Adachi that “our system ensures that innocent people are not locked up” is shockingly wrong. Perhaps he misspoke. Surely he knows that innocent people are not well served by the legal system and huge numbers are forced to plead to bogus charges, and many more are innocent but convicted.

    Law enforcement is a huge industry and gets lots of good press from right wing/conservative outlets.
    Too bad it’s entirely corrupt.

    1. David Greenwald

      I’m sure he’s well aware of the problem of innocents getting convicted, so I suspect he left out “attempts to ensure” or some modifier to that effect.

  3. tj

    I’m just learning about parole hearings. The inmates’ attorneys are contracted by and paid for by the parole board, which is a branch of CDCR. On its face, that looks like a major conflict of interest. Whatever the DA or law enforcement want, that seems to be how the hearings turn out, regardless of the facts and the legal criteria that are supposed to be used. Law enforcement taking care of law enforcement. No wonder the prisons are full.

  4. D.D.

    The prisons and the county get paid for each inmate so of course they want to incarcerate us.
    If nothing else, when a county wrongfully holds an inmate, we should be allowed to deduct the bail and attorney fees from our county property taxes and state income taxes, if the case is later expunged or dismissed. Money talks.

  5. D.D.

    “Our system ensures that innocent people are not locked up based on flimsy accusations, and that everyone has an opportunity to have their day in court.”

    Every citizen probably wants our system to ensure that, but you and I both know in many Caliifornia counties (highest rate of wrongful convictions in the U.S.) and other counties around America, innocents are routinely locked up, based on flimsy accusations.

  6. D.D.

    One of the main reasons we all need prosecutors and defense lawyers is because certain humans are bullies. They beat their toddlers. Neighbors look the other way. The slapping and hitting escalates, because certain abusers realize no one cares. The toddler grows up to be an angry young man, or the toddler grows up to be a battered woman. Or the toddler dies before adulthood, of suicide, drug overdose, gun injury, etc.
    A dad tells his son to toughen up and not cry. He feeds his kid too big a breakfast and the kid throws up during his first real soccer game. “Stop crying, your team needs you. Shake it off. Hide your emotions.” The kid learns to bottle up his feelings. He may slam doors or push his little sister or the family pet when no one is looking. The anger seethes. Competetive sports just don’t seem to help. Gee, I wonder why.
    Teachers tell the bullied kid’s parents to pick anther sport because competitve sports are so important for kids. (Maybe they put the little boy in football, and he suffers a head injury years later.) The teacher never suggests yoga or meditation or a non-competitive activity, and God forbid you mention praying the rosary as a way to calm down…just one option of many.
    So the bullies, verbal and physical, learn that no one understands or cares.
    Fix the bullying and maybe we won’t need so many legal warriors to come to our rescue.

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