Answer by Tre Critelli, attorney, barrister:
What is it like to be the defense attorney of someone you strongly believe to have commited the crime? A whole hell of a lot better than being the defense attorney of someone you strongly believe did not commit the crime.
Representing the guilty is pretty straightforward. The burden is on the government to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If your client tells you they committed the act, you look for an affirmative defense (e.g. self-defense) that is supported by the evidence. If they haven’t admitted the act to you, then you do your best to hold the government to its proof by impeaching its witnesses, questioning the foundations of its evidence, and arguing against the inferences being made.
Representing the innocent, however, is completely different. In addition to the above, you also have a constant gnawing at you that no matter what you do, it isn’t going to be enough. The burden has shifted to you to prove their innocence, and it is much, much harder to prove a negative (that someone didn’t do something) than it is to prove someone did something. The case will easily consume you, trumping everything else in your life because someone you have become convinced is truly innocent is at risk of going to prison or facing the death penalty and you are the only one that can prevent it.
If they are convicted, you then get the pleasure of trying to go to sleep each night knowing that if you had just done a little bit more, perhaps asked a different question of a witness or spent just a few more hours digging through documents looking for exhibits, the outcome would have been different and the innocent would be free. It becomes your fault that the innocent person is in prison, even though you did all you could to prevent it. You should have done more. Why didn’t you do more? What could possibly have been more important than that? The case gnaws at you for months, years even decades and becomes one of the things that you will never, ever forget.
More questions on Attorneys:
- Why do you love being a lawyer?
- What are some pieces of legal folk wisdom that seasoned lawyers like to tell new attorneys?
- When a lawyer questions a witness, does he/she already know the answer to the question?