The verdict in Jerry Sandusky’s sex abuse trial was reached and delivered yesterday, and–much to the public’s collective relief–the jury found him guilty on 45 of 48 counts. The evidence against Sandusky was overwhelming, and any result other than a conviction would have surely caused widespread outrage and rioting. Thankfully, this was not the case.
After hearing the news of the jury’s decision, I felt satisfied that justice had been served. And I figured that would be the extent of my reaction to this whole case–internal satisfaction that our justice system worked, and nothing more. However, a disheartening feeling struck me when I began reading tweets and Facebook posts bashing the attorneys in charge of defending Mr. Sandusky. So here I sit, ready to explain why the defense attorney-bashers need to tone it down a few notches.
Why We Have Defense Attorneys
Defense attorneys are a necessary (albeit unpopular) part of the criminal justice system in the United States. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution says: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” Criminal defense is essential to maintaining a fair justice system, especially when the accused maintains his innocence. Defense attorneys must work based on the plea that their client (the accused) enters.
In Jerry Sandusky’s case, he maintained his innocence throughout the investigation and subsequent trial. This is all his attorneys had to work off of–it was their job to create reasonable doubt, despite what they may have personally believed about their client’s innocence. If Mr. Sandusky plead not guilty, then it was their duty to defend him–and they did just that.
In addition, wrongful convictions are all too common in our criminal justice system, and good defense attorneys can help prevent wrongful convictions. You really want to lambaste someone who could be the only thing keeping an innocent person out of a life in prison–or worse, the execution chamber?
The Role of the Defense
In criminal courts in United States, each party–the prosecution and the defense–has a specific duty they must perform to win the case. It is the prosecution’s duty to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the defendant is guilty of the crime of which they are accused. Of course, they use witness testimony, physical evidence, and the like to accomplish their ultimate goal of conviction. In criminal proceedings, the burden of proof lies with the State; the prosecution is the only party that must prove anything.
On the contrary, the defense does not have to prove a thing, but rather inject holes in the prosecution’s case to create reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is the only thing required to acquit someone of a crime. Defense attorneys do not have to prove anything regarding their client’s innocence, they simply need to make jurors doubt the prosecution’s story. The public’s fundamental misunderstanding of these different roles lead us to the cause of the defense attorney’s bad reputation in the public eye.
The Public Judgment Dilemma
As I’ve already said, a defendant’s attorneys need not prove their client’s innocence in order to get an acquittal. In a court of law, a defendant is given the benefit of the presumption of innocence–they are innocent until proven guilty. The location of the burden of proof stems from this fundamental right granted to those accused of crimes. And I’ve already postulated that the general public does not understand where the burden of proof lies, and thus criticism against defense attorneys is much easier to levy. But why do people have such a profound misunderstanding of the principles of our justice system?
I call it the Public Judgment Dilemma. In present times, modern technology and the news media make it possible to know the intimate details of high profile cases from around the country. Exhibits A, B, and C: the cases of Michael Jackson, Casey Anthony, and Jerry Sandusky. The public can follow these cases closely–they can hear evidence (even read Grand Jury reports online), and make judgments of their own. The problem is that people often rush to judgment upon hearing the story of and sparse details about a criminal case. In other words, the public rushes to premature judgment, with their collective verdict almost always being that the defendant is assuredly guilty. In this way, the presumption of innocence is ignored, the roles of prosecution and defense teams are forgotten, and defense attorneys morph into soulless monsters who try to acquit the most heinous criminals. The poor reputation of the defense attorney stems from the public presuming that everyone accused of a crime is guilty before the jury reaches a verdict (or before the jury is even selected, for that matter).
To conclude, I ask those who bash defense attorneys to carefully consider how warranted that criticism may be. Remember that every defendant is innocent–no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them–until the prosecution proves otherwise. Defense attorneys perform a job that is Constitutionally mandated, and although their duty is unpopular and misunderstood, they are the only thing standing between the defendant and the prison. From a someone considering a career in criminal defense, I ask that you remember that.