I was listening to a true crime podcast the other day when one of the hosts said something along the lines of, “I don’t know how criminal defense attorneys sleep at night. I can’t imagine they like themselves very much.” Although I should be used to it by now, I was irritated.
I am a defense attorney. And I don’t sleep very well a lot of nights. But it’s not because I’m an evil person that hates myself for being evil. It’s because my clients, who are accused of crimes, are real people with real problems. They have goals and dreams. They have family and friends. They have lives that are at stake due to their criminal charges.
I don’t sleep well at night because my juvenile client has been in the hospital for months (after a minor procedure) simply because no one will pick him up.
I don’t sleep well at night because my college client’s future is at stake because his ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual assault.
I don’t sleep well at night because my aging client, who has tried so hard to turn his life around, may go back to prison for contraband that wasn't his.
I don’t sleep well at night because my client the other day was nine months pregnant and living in the woods. She stole from a store because she didn’t have any food. She was so grateful to me simply for being nice to her.
I don’t sleep well at night because my young client has a serious illness and used drugs to self-medicate. He now faces a felony conviction.
I could go on.
Defense attorneys are often demonized in popular culture. Many of my own friends and family are baffled that I “defend criminals.”
The truth is that some of the best people I know are criminal defense attorneys and I aspire to be like them every day. Criminal defense attorneys help protect the innocent, and we fight to protect everyone's constitutional rights in a system that favors the rich and the white over the poor and people of color.
Just as important, however, is the work we do for those who have no defense. (Yes, we defend guilty people!). In reality, most of our work involves plea negotiations with the prosecutor and plea and sentencing hearings in front of a judge. On a rare occasion are we arguing actual innocence in front of a judge or jury.
Our clients, just like all of us, are imperfect human beings. They make mistakes. Sometimes bad mistakes. The job of a defense attorney, however, is to look at these imperfect people and pick out the good. Where did they come from. What led them to their mistakes. How will they overcome this. Who cares about them. Who depends on them. What are their goals for the future.
Our job is to humanize our clients in a system that can view them as a case number. As a statistic. We aid the prosecutors and the judges in understanding that our clients are all unique, individual people. Flawed. But human.
Wouldn’t you want that for yourself? For your parent? Your child? Your sibling? Your friend? Do you really want to live in a world without good defense attorneys? Who would fight for the innocent? Who would stand up to the police when they overstep? Who would have compassion for those that no one else will?
I’ll close with a passage from one of my favorite books:
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer I get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.” -Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption