Why do attorneys represent criminals?
I think most defense attorneys get asked this once in a while. If someone discovers I recently got a jury to return a not guilty verdict in favor of my client, I sometimes get the follow-up question:
How can you do that? You are getting criminals off.
As those are fair questions, I suppose they warrant a fair response. But first, I need to explain how a criminal proceeding works.
In our system, each person who is charged with a crime is merely accused of a committing a crime. We have all heard of the presumption of innocence. What that means is that the sole purpose of initiating criminal proceedings against a person is to see if the State (or whatever unit of government is handling the prosecution) can produce enough evidence to convince a fact finder (judge or jury) that each element of the charged offense(s), offenses of proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Strictly speaking, whether the person actually committed the crime is not the issue, but rather the sufficiency of the evidence. It is not the burden of the accused to provide innocence, but on the State to prove guilt.
In many instances, an innocent person couldn’t prove his innocence anyway. How do you prove you didn’t steal something from a retail store? Because nobody found it on you? So what, the state can say, you may have thrown it out your car window on the way home. After all, someone says they she saw you take it and the store says they never found the item. If you did steal it, shouldn’t they have more proof than someone claiming to see something. Anyone can claim to see anyone else doing anything. That is why the burden is on those making the accusations.
The State can come at a person with such awesome resources. The average person can’t possibly pay attorneys enough to win a war of attrition with the government. For that reason, our Founding Fathers laid out protections in our Constitution to even the playing field. That is why we are protected from unlawful searches and seizures, the right to not self-incriminate, to confront our accusers, to a trial by a jury of our peers, and the protection from torture and other cruel and unusual punishments that have been historically used to induce confessions.
These protections are available to everyone accused of a crime, whether he is guilty or not. These are particularly important to a person who is in fact innocent or who knows that the State does not have enough evidence or that is obtained what evidence it does have unlawfully. They give a person a fighting chance. Justice is done with the state can prove its case, not when it can get a conviction. Our Founding Fathers, like most well educated people, understand that it is far better for a free society to let the occasional guilty man go free than for a single innocent person be convicted.