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.