By Collin County Criminal Defense Attorney Jeremy Rosenthal
I get this question a lot from people I meet and acquaintances who don’t know me very well. It’s a common and fair question but the truth is I can’t settle on just one reason. Obviously, not every one is guilty, but this blog is only about the cases I handle where the guilt is somewhat clear-cut… So here it goes:
5. Being a Criminal Defense Lawyer is Extremely Hard Work
Ever try changing someone’s mind? It’s pretty hard. This is to say being a defense lawyer — taking unpopular positions and defending people whose actions are impossible to understand or justify is extremely difficult work.
It’s rewarding, though, when you can convince people that an unpopular stand is still the right stand to take. Sometimes that might be letting someone free even though they think the defendant may be guilty in their hearts — or giving someone a minimal punishment despite a mistake they made.
It takes a lot of courage to go to the 50 yard-line of Cowboy’s Stadium and to yell, “Go Cowboys!” One must conquer fear of public appearance and the daunting task of being in front of 90,000 people. But it’s much harder to do all the same things and yell “Go Giants!” when you get there. THAT is what it means to be a criminal defense lawyer.
4. It’s a Critical Safeguard on Liberty
Many lawyers might say they defend people because “everyone has rights.” This is obviously true but a bit of a weak answer in my view. It’s kind of like saying I’ll hold my client’s hand while we lose. I prefer winning.
I think a better way of putting it is that if I can make it extremely hard to jail or convict people who are ridiculously guilty — then I make it impossible to convict someone who is innocent.
When I acquit someone by showing law enforcement errors… or if I acquit someone by exposing a prosecutor who is bending or exaggerating the truth then they tend to learn from their mistakes and get it right later. Though neither would admit to this — when they do a bang-up job on a criminal case, they do it (at least in part) because they’re afraid of losing at trial. It equals more justice and we all want the same thing.
3. I Like My Clients and Their Families
Today we all get sucked into this dialogue of good versus evil. Children’s cartoons and the news media portray the bad guys as evil and demonic but this isn’t reality. Otherwise good people often do thoughtless or rotten things which hurt others and land them in appropriate trouble — but this doesn’t mean they’re still not a human being worthy of respect. Also some people make bad mistakes because they’re not being themselves. That is they are addicted to a substance or they are mentally ill — or both.
I can’t help but connect with a human being that is scared and in need of help… or their families for that matter. A criminal prosecution, at it’s core, is the government trying to damage a person’s life. Whether the person deserves the prosecution is not for me to say… but I can’t think that helping a person in need is ever wrong.
2. I Hate to See People Get Screwed
Third world countries make up the rules as they go along. Think about how someone hated by the general public would get treated in a small country we only see in the newspaper headlines. They might be denied counsel or be given a trial in the jail two days after the arrest in front of some minister of justice. They may be denied the chance to have witnesses speak in their own behalf or they may be convicted because their innocent explanation doesn’t make sense.
What separates America from those countries is that we don’t make up the rules as we go along just because we know we are dealing with someone who is guilty.
Americans are still humans who value their own security and safety — even at the expense of others. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and even the judiciary can be guilty of result-oriented thinking which leads to bending the rules – or making them up as they go along. Someone needs to be there to call a foul when they see it.
1. “Well Why Don’t We Just Chop Off His Arm, Then?!”
When someone asks how I can defend someone charged with (fill in the blank) whom I know is guilty, my first response is typically, “well why don’t we just chop his arm off, then?” Simply put, the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime.
When someone takes responsibility or confesses guilt, there is an implied social contract. The implication is the authorities will be fair and reasonable.
Just because someone is guilty doesn’t mean the punishment is being handled fairly. The legislature sets punishments for criminal offenses in Texas. I tell my clients that the laws are unfair and slanted against them because politicians — especially in Texas — get more votes by each pledging to be tougher on crime then their predecessor. There is no lobby in Austin for DWI offenders, drug addicts, or sex offenders that I am aware of. Hence, no one cares what they think when laws are being written.
It is my job to make sure the prosecutor and the Judge fully understand my client is not evil and is a human being. Once they know my client’s story — they can help understand and it will be far more fair.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article should be considered legal advice. For legal advice about any situation you should contact an attorney directly.