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This is What Criminal Defense is Supposed to Look Like

Posted by Brian K. Tillman on 9 February 2015

I confess to being a little bit of a “True Believer” when it comes to criminal defense. My close colleagues and I do our best to humanize our clients, many of whom have done stupid things, and try to make others relate to their human frailty. Everyone is frail, even prosecutors, even police officers, even judges (and some defense lawyers). In our clients, human flaws are most often the root of criminal charges, that people are too selfish about their actions, or implusive due to desperation or financial stress, or influenced by alcohol or drugs, jealousy, mental illness. A good criminal defense lawyer reminds us that we are all imperfect, and asks us to view the world through the eyes of the PERSON that is his client, as his reality exists. Whether you know it or not, we all know or are related to someone who has done something that amounts to a felony, whether or not they were ever caught or charged. And frankly, you might even think they are a pretty decent person, the kind of people you’d be friends or family with. That’s part of what makes this job doable instead of unbearable, keeping things reasonable, at a minimum.

So I came across this video last week that really impressed me on a personal level, about a female lawyer who was arrested for trying to shield her client from being photographed by police in the courthouse. I immediately began to smile, because I KNEW that she was a public defender. Nobody I knew or had ever heard of, and hell, she might have been wrong, but there was at least one man standing there probably dumbfounded as he watched her willingly placed in handcuffs to defend his not-moneyed behind. And away they took her.Â

I’m not here to make her into a hero, there are plenty of teachers and mental health workers, and yes some policemen that can fill that bill. But that is some pretty dramatic stuff. There’s just not that many people who are interested in the topic of defending poor people who get into criminal trouble, It doesn’t make for flashy politics. But it does make for giving a damn about your fellow human being. And the next time you hear someone talking down about a public defender, and how they have a crappy “win percentage”, whatever that is, please consider something. In the same way that you can’t choose your public defense lawyer, they also don’t get to choose you. What that means is that they get thrown into trials with some of the most unlikeable clients, with the most hopeless fact patterns, over and over again. They take it on the chin, and defend people they may despise or sometimes fear. And sometimes, they win. So next time you’re in a bad spot and wake up needing a little public legal help, hopefully you’ll be in a place where they make ’em like this one. Cheers!

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