Unless you are directly involved in the criminal justice system in the United States, you probably get most of your impressions and opinions about it from the internet and television. Unfortunately, not all of that is accurate. If you suddenly find yourself directly involved in the system, as a defendant or even a victim, you will likely find that you have a number of questions about the system and the people who are part of the system. One question that criminal defense attorneys hear over and over again is “ Why do criminal attorneys defend guilty people?” The answer to that question is important because it explains a lot about the criminal justice system in general.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
Like much of the U.S. government in general, the basic tenets of the U.S. criminal justice system were directly related to the reason the original settlers make the potentially life-threatening trip across the ocean in the first place. Many of them were fleeing from persecution, burdensome taxation, and government without representation. They often came from a society where the Crown made and enforced the laws and the presumption of innocence did not exist. It should come as no surprise then that much of the rights we have today in the United States were included in the Bill of Rights to ensure that the “New World” did not mimic the “Old World.”
Your Constitutional Rights
The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” outlines a number of rights and privileges you have in the U.S. The 6th Amendment specifically applies to defendants in a criminal prosecution, reading as follows:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
As you can see, and contrary to what many people believe, the words “innocent until proven guilty” are not specifically mentioned in the 6th Amendment – or anywhere else in the Bill of Rights. Nonetheless, the rights outlined in the 6th Amendment are where your right to be “innocent until proven guilty” is established.
The State’s Burden – Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The other common buzz words you have undoubtedly heard before are the “beyond a reasonable doubt” mantra. They refer to the State’s burden in a criminal prosecution. This distinction in who has the burden in a criminal prosecution is an important one. In many criminal justice systems around the world, the burden is on the defendant to prove his/her innocence instead of on the State (meaning the government) to prove guilt. Placing the burden on the State dramatically decreases the likelihood of innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit. The often quoted maxim “It is better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted” sums up the concept behind placing the burden on the State in a criminal prosecution.
In practical terms, this means that a defendant in a criminal prosecution is not required to present a defense at all. The defendant has nothing to prove. The only question should be whether the prosecuting attorney proved the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Of course, jurors are human and they often want to hear some type of defense; however, it is important to understand that the defendant is not the one with something to prove in a criminal prosecution.
Criminal Attorneys and the Question of Guilt
To answer the original question – why do criminal attorneys defend guilty people? The simple answer is – they don’t. That might be a confusing answer though. The job of a criminal attorney is first to protect the rights of a defendant. This entails things such as making sure the defendant does not incriminate himself or making sure a search is not conducted without a warrant. The other job of a criminal attorney is to make sure that the defendant is not convicted unless the State meets its burden. In other words, a criminal attorney is not focused on defending a guilty person, but on protecting a client’s rights and making sure the State does its job and does not railroad someone into prison. A defendant’s guilt or innocence is actually irrelevant to those two primary jobs.
Unfortunately, innocent people are accused of crimes all the time. Mistakes happen. Someday you could find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and wind up facing serious criminal charges. If that happens, you will find yourself eternally thankful that the U.S. criminal justice system operates on the principles it uses. You will also be glad criminal defense attorneys play a vital role within that system without regard to whether people are guilty or innocent.
Contact the Criminal Attorneys at Petersen Law Office
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the State of Nebraska, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Nebraska criminal defense attorney right away to discuss possible defenses. In Nebraska contact Petersen Criminal Defense Law 24 hours a day at 402-509-8070 to discuss your case.