Ask a Lawyer: Defending the Monsters

This is going to be a multi-part series where my friend Jason answers a bunch of my legal questions. Feel free to email with any questions you might have for a future one. Also, you can find all of these with the tag AskaLawyer. Thank you Jason for your help!

Hello, my name is Jason Imler. I am an attorney in Blair County, Pennsylvania. I am a long-time reader of Josh’s blog and a friend of his for well past ten years. Josh has asked me to address some issues in the law on this blog and I am more than happy to oblige. To start out, I just want to put forth a pretty standard warning, which is, that this is not legal advice, I am not your attorney, and if you have a legal issue you should consult an attorney. IF YOU ARE IN TROUBLE, SEE AN ATTORNEY. And, yes,PUBLIC DEFENDERS ARE ATTORNEYS.

A recent post by Josh regarding a recent crime brought up an important issue that Josh had previously asked me to write about for this blog. Now is a great time to address that particular issue, which is essentially answering the question of how attorney’s defend people that they know are guilty. So, let me explore this issue for a bit for you.

Let’s start with something easy, let’s consider the situation where you haven’t paid a particular credit card bill and you are being sued for it. You go to an attorney and you hire them to defend you. You have done something that some may consider wrong, you have broken a contract to pay for some thing or service that you have received. But that attorney defends you and works to either eliminate the debt or negotiate a better deal for you. The attorney and you both know that you owe the debt, but that is not what his job is. His job is to do the best for you that he can. Just like the attorney for the credit card company will do the same as well.

This is how our system is designed. It is set up to have two sides that battle against one another so that the fact-finder, a judge or a jury in our system, can find the all-too elusive truth. In order to function, our system requires that both sides advocate for their position as fully as possible, within the bounds of truth. It is through this conflict that our system hopes to find justice.

The same is true in even the most horrific of criminal cases. Providing someone a defense is about providing them good counsel and working to ensure justice is served. The defense attorney acts as the sole bulwark against the immense power of the state, which can crush the innocent and guilty alike. A defense attorney takes pride in being this bulwark. 

It is not the defense attorney’s job to determine guilt or innocence. It is their job to look at the evidence, create the best case that one can, and get the best possible outcome for their client. Meanwhile, the District Attorney will be doing the same on behalf of society. However, the District Attorney must seek more than just winning, the DA is tasked with finding justice, which makes her analysis of a case significantly different. 

Representing a client in a criminal case is not always about going to trial and getting them acquitted. That is not always possible. In those circumstances you are working to ensure that the charges fit the offense and the punishment fits the crime. In short, you are working to ensure that the Constitution is respected and its promises fulfilled. 

So, let’s move to a hard case. The Clearfield County child abuse case. It seems that the evidence is stacked against the defendants in that case. So the defense attorney, who may be on the case privately or may have been ordered by the court to represent the defendant, must evaluate the evidence, consider the possible charges, defeat the charges that are excessive or do not fit the facts, and argue for a sentence that seems fair and just. The legislature has set forth certain ranges of punishment for each particular offense and there are a multitude of ways to craft sentences through these guidelines, the defense attorney has to negotiate with the DA to find a sentence that the parties agree make sense. 

But if this doesn’t work, then you go to trial. Sometimes its a great case and you want to go to trial because you believe you have a good chance to win. Sometimes you are going to trial because the DA won’t offer you a reasonable deal and you have no real choice. Sometimes your client simply has nothing to lose and wants to make a point. In these circumstances, our system would simply fail to work if the defense attorney did not put forth the best defense they could. Again, sometimes that defense is showing the judge that there are mitigating circumstances that affect what the sentence would be. And sometimes it is about showing that your client is truly innocent. 

Defense attorneys have seen enough mistakes to know that sometimes, everyone gets it wrong. As a result, most defense attorneys never really think about that question, whether the person is guilty or not, because who are we to decide? Our job is to help the jury decide who is guilty or not by putting forth the best defense we can, whatever that may be.

Just like the credit card case, even if you know that the person is guilty, you still do your job because the Constitution is counting on it. Simple as that.