Western Justice, self-proclaimed small town prosecutor, quotes Alan Dershowitz in asking whether criminal defense attorneys are “lie promoters“.
But let’s say their client comes in, and tells them everything that happened–down to the very last detail, and those details are essentially–I’m guilty, I did it, and everything in the police reports is true.
Under that limited scenario, when a defense attorney goes into court, questions the jury during voir dire, presents an opening statement, cross examines witnesses, and maybe even calls a few witnesses himself, and then argues in closing not just that the District Attorney did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, but that there are several other reasonable alternatives as to what might have happened, are defense attorneys lie promoters?
Several things struck me about this as problematic. First of all, it would indeed be an extremely rare circumstance in which the defendant actually admits that everything that is alleged is 100% true. There’s a reason for this and it’s not because defendants are liars, but because rarely is everything actually true.
The second, and more fundamental, problem is the abject failure to recognize the system that we have and the distinct roles that prosecutors and defense attorneys fill in that system.
Defense attorneys are not partners in this pursuit of justice – we are defenders of the Constitution and of individual liberties. We are not charged with coming at the truth, but rather ensuring that the Government does not willy-nilly imprison individuals. There is a reason that the burden of proof rests with the State and defendants need not lift a finger at trial.
Yet another thing that bothers me is the holier-than-thou attitude, which I’ve written about several times. Prosecutors like to think of themselves are righteous, can-do-no-wrong proponents of some higher ideal. Yet, time and again, they will take as gospel the drivel spewed forth by cops in “police reports”, ignore blatant lies, “lose” exculpatory information, condone arm-twisting of witnesses and victims. Where is the righteous indignation then? Why no outcry? The hypocrisy is palpable.
If you’re looking for the truth, Mr. Prosecutor, start by asking yourself if you would file a substitute information on a lesser charge or dismiss them entirely if you have any doubt as to the veracity of the facts are reported by the police. And if you would, recognize that it is your job to do so and that you are in the minority. Just as the defense attorney who goes to trial with a client who has “admitted” guilt. And even then, recognize that both the rare prosecutor who does not drink the kool-aid and the defense attorney that goes to trial in those circumstances are obligated to do so. The burden is yours, not ours.
This is not some silly game. The very liberty of individuals hangs in the balance. What I know or do not know about my client’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether you can prove that he is guilty.
In the real world, one would assume that if the facts are such that all the elements of the offense would be easily proven, and there is no dispute from the defense, then the case will be plea bargained. But remember that a bargain means give and take. If you make an offer that is essentially the same as what the defendant would get if he went to trial, there is no bargain. You are providing no incentive to avoid putting you to your burden.
Scott provides a fitting conclusion:
But the galling aspect of this “theory” is the implicit assumption that it is the defendant who is inclined to play with the “truth”. I can’t count the number of times some kid prosecutor confuses himself with being Odie to some cop’s Garfield, lapping up whatever story the cop feeds him as if it’s gospel. What makes prosecutors believe, truly believe, that they aren’t getting fed a slab of beef surrounded by a garnish of utter fabrication? This “my cop would never lie” attitude is the mark of naiveté. Cops treat kid prosecutors like the village idiot, too stupid to recognize tailored testimony if their life depended on it.
So is it more fulfilling to claim ownership of the “truth” when it’s the product of child-like self-righteousness? One side has an ethical duty to do justice. The other had a duty to defend a person. That’s the way the system is supposed to work, and to think that there’s one side that owns the truth is just silly.
What say you, WJ?