Likewise, how can the lawyers representing Cleveland’s Ariel Castro fight for a man who pleaded guilty on Friday to 937 counts related to the kidnapping, imprisonment and rape of three women? And what about the attorneys for the recently acquitted but still controversial George Zimmerman? Do they really believe he is completely innocent of any wrongdoing in shooting an unarmed teen?
I have been a criminal defense lawyer for more than 30 years, first as a public defender and now as a law professor running a criminal defense clinic. My clients have included a young man who gunned down his neighbor in front of her 5-year-old daughter while trying to steal her car, a man who beat a young woman to death for failing to alert drug associates that police were coming and a woman who smothered her baby for no apparent reason. These are the kinds of cases that prompt people to ask: “How can you represent those people?” All criminal defense lawyers are asked this; it’s such a part of the criminal defense experience that it’s simply known as “the question.”
Most of us have a repertoire of stock replies about how the system can’t work without good lawyers on both sides, or the harshness of punishment, or the excessive number of people — especially minorities — locked up in this country. Capital defenders such as Tsarnaev lawyer Judy Clarke tend to cite their opposition to the death penalty.
But our motivations are usually personal and sometimes difficult to articulate. I often say I was inspired by “To Kill a Mockingbird.” There is no more compelling figure than Atticus Finch defending a wrongly accused poor black man. Innocence, though, is not a chief driver for me. To the contrary, I often call my life’s work “the guilty project.” Criminal defense is, for the most part, defending the factually guilty — people who have done something wrong, though maybe not exactly what is alleged.
That works for me because, as it happens, I like guilty people. I prefer people who are flawed and complicated to those who are irreproachable. As legendary American lawyer Clarence Darrow put it more than 80 years ago: “Strange as it may seem, I grew to like to defend men and women charged with crime. . . . I became vitally interested in the causes of human conduct. . . . I was dealing with life, with its hopes and fears, its aspirations and despairs.”
Defense lawyers try to find the humanity in the people we represent, no matter what they may have done. We resist the phrase “those people” because it suggests too clear a line between us and them. Clarke has managed to do this with some of the most notorious criminals of the past two decades, including “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. “Even if it’s the smallest sliver of common ground, Judy’s going to be able to find that,” said Kaczynski’s brother, David. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Judy saw my brother’s humanity despite the terrible things he’d done.”