What Is The Role Of A Criminal Defense Lawyer?
November 22, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Two California professors recently faced off over the role of criminal defense lawyers in the justice system. According to the Sacramento Bee, Julie Mumma and Jimmy Martinez both teach criminal justice at Sacramento State University. They are adjunct professors in the Division of Criminal Justice at the University.
Mumma is a criminal defense lawyer. Martinez is a former sheriff’s deputy. Not surprisingly, they have very different views on criminal defense lawyers. Martinez, the ex-cop, sees criminal defense lawyers and their clients as a bunch of con artists.
Former Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy Jimmy Martinez contends criminal defendants are usually guilty and that their attorneys frequently lie in the courtroom.
Martinez’s statements reveal a deep misunderstanding about the criminal justice system.
Last week, Fault Lines had a debate about using race in jury selection. In the spirit of debate, which is slowly dying in America, both sides were presented. And in the spirit of the Internet, a commenter decided to weigh in without putting any thought into his comment:
You have defined the ends as “win, win, win.” You don’t care if the client is innocent or guilty. You don’t care if you destroy a witness’ reputation or career by admittedly misrepresenting and distorting the truth. Your goal is to get every client off so nobody ever goes to jail. And you think morals are relative.
His point, I guess, was that lawyers should be studying moral philosophy so that we can have… more thoughtful trials? Our kindly editor took issue with mixing morals and the law.
Sacramento State professor Jimmy Martinez falls down the same rabbit hole as the commenter, assuming the criminal justice system is one big fraud perpetrated by sly criminal defense lawyers stealing morality from our benevolent society of victims. Martinez knows this based on two of the most common sources of information available to people these days: some random book and his own opinion.
On the day Mumma and her students went to Martinez’s class, he presented a lecture on defense attorneys. Martinez said his lesson about their role comes largely from Alan Dershowitz’s book “The Best Defense.”
“The vast majority (of his clients) were guilty and he still got them off,” Martinez said. “The criminal justice system leans heavily toward the rights of the accused and the victims take a back seat.”
“I quote from a renowned lawyer,” Martinez said. “My opinion is based on my personal experiences.”
The Dershowitz book Martinez is using, written in 1983, is touted as:
The author presents his most famous, and infamous, cases and clients, and in the process, takes a critical, informed look at a legal system that he regards as deeply corrupt.
I haven’t read the book, and this isn’t a book review. But a lawyer who thinks the legal system is “deeply corrupt” is probably not the most credible source of information for your evaluation of that system. Especially if the book is your sole source of outside information.
But Martinez has another source which is more familiar to all of us. His own opinion. That seems to be the source of almost all of the information we are exposed to these days. Based on personal experiences, Martinez knows the criminal justice system is biased towards the defendants and ignores victims.
You have to be a complete idiot former police officer to make that statement. Biased towards the accused? Most criminal defense lawyers hear that, but have yet to step into this mythical defendant-friendly world people like Martinez speak about.
The reason that commenter and Martinez all think criminal defense lawyers are liars and immoral jackasses is because they don’t understand how the system works. But that seems to be a common refrain in America. And that is terrifying.
When the commenter accuses me of not caring about the guilt or innocence of my clients and only trying to win every case, he is both right and wrong.
As a person, I spend a great deal of time lying awake at night, drinking bourbon and stressing out over those things. Criminal defense lawyers are humans. We don’t want out home broken into or our spouses beaten either. But the accused citizen doesn’t need a sensitive human to hold his hand and cry together and do yoga. The accused citizen needs a lawyer.
As a lawyer, of course, I don’t care about guilt or innocence. Of course I try to win every case. That’s literally the only way our system can work. Martinez, and people like him, have made up their minds that most people are guilty and should be convicted. From the investigation through the arrest, case preparation, and prosecution, everything is done with the smug knowledge the right guy has been caught. Which is great, except for when the cops violate the Constitution in the process or the wrong guy has been caught.
So who is going to look out for that wrong guy? Not the police and prosecutors. Certainly not the judge. And definitely not the jury. None of those players can be bothered with actually critically looking at a case and thinking maybe the police get it wrong sometimes.
So that leaves defense lawyers to look out for your sorry ass. And in turn, those lawyers are called liars. And immoral. And whatever else you can think of to bounce around your echo chamber of self-righteousness.
The reason criminal defense lawyers try to win every case, without regard to anything other than winning, is because it tests the system. Instead of prejudging guilt and pretending to be all-knowing, these lawyers just wreck the government’s case. And if, after the wreck, there is still a conviction, maybe there is some validity to that conviction.
Maybe you don’t like that. Maybe you think the system would work best if there was no foil, and everybody worked together to hang the right guy on the courthouse square.
The problem with that thinking is that it doesn’t leave any room for thought or debate or disagreement. And ultimately, that is the role of the criminal defense lawyer. To present the other side. To give voice to the possibility of mistake. To break your biases and make you look at the facts. What looks to you like lying and a lack of morals is actually just the other side of the case. And no one should be sent to prison without you seeing that other side.
If some pompous old defense lawyer who writes books about his clients and an ex-cop who spouts off with a minimum of information don’t agree, consider the source. Or lack of source.