Criminal Defense - Are You Crazy?

Why I am proud to be a criminal defense lawyer.

By Don Murray

I have been practicing criminal defense since 1990, and over the years people have frequently been quite frank with me with their concerns about my representing people accused of crimes. “How can you represent those people?” is one very familiar question. Another is the question, “What do you do if someone tells you he is guilty?”

Often implicit in these questions is a sense that my job as a criminal defense lawyer is at best in a gray area of social acceptability and at worst downright immoral. There is even among lawyers frequently a sense that those of us who chose to be criminal defense lawyers must either be incompetent or crazy to select one of the least popular specialties in the law.

Earlier in my career I would energetically answer these “questions” and try to explain the answers. But the more I tried to explain myself, the more I began to realize that these were really not questions at all. The people posing these questions to me were not in truth seeking information. They were in the vast majority of cases, simply meaning to highlight what they believed to be the obviousness of my foolishness or immorality.

So to those who question the value of what I do or who wonder why it could be that any sane person would choose this specialty over others that are vastly more lucrative, know this:

Every single day of my life I wake up thrilled that I have the honor of being a criminal defense lawyer.

I am honored to be a criminal defense lawyer for two significant reasons. First, I am honored to be allowed to be a criminal defense lawyer because it is a job that our Founding Fathers believed to be so important to a free society that they wrote it into our Constitution. Take a look at the United States Constitution. Check where it says, “Sixth Amendment”. If you read the Sixth Amendment, you will find a part that says, “…and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense”. That’s ME. That’s my job. That’s a criminal defense lawyer written right there into the blueprint for our society. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically guarantees the existence of my job. Not bad eh? Not very many people can say that their job is specifically identified and guaranteed by the United States Constitution. I can.  So it seems to me that it is an honor to be allowed to take on such an important job.

When the vast and virtually unlimited resources of the Government are arrayed against a person accused of a crime, someone like me is guaranteed a chance to stand up for the accused. No matter what. It is a fundamental principle of our freedom. The honor of my job seemed to be self-evident to our Founding Fathers. 

Second, I am honored to be allowed to be a criminal defense lawyer because I am honored to follow in the footsteps of some of this country’s greatest heroes. And I don't mean hero in the modern watered down sense of the term. I mean real heroes. People like John Adams and Abraham Lincoln (to name only two) were criminal defense lawyers at one time in their lives. In fact, John Adams declared toward the end of his life that one of his greatest services to our country was successfully to defend the British Soldiers accused of murdering American Colonists in the incident many labeled “The Boston Massacre.”

That John Adams esteemed above all else his service to this country as a criminal defense lawyer in a notorious murder trial is instructive. John Adams did quite a bit for our country, not the least of which was to help found it. He was our second President. And yet it was his service as a criminal defense lawyer in a contentious and politically charged murder trial that he believed was perhaps his greatest achievement. What a tribute to the strength of his belief in the importance of criminal defense lawyers to the meaning of freedom in this country.

So important was it to Adams to see that the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre case were represented by a lawyer, that he accepted the job at great personal risk.

He believed that representing the soldiers in the murder trial would be highly unpopular, but he did it anyway. He believed that his future political career in America might be ruined by taking the job, but he did it anyway. He believed that his own personal safety might be in question if he took the job, but he did it anyway. John Adams demonstrated in his deeds commitment to his beliefs. It was an act of great Patriotism to defend those British soldiers, or at least so John Adams thought.

Adams believed that railroading the accused in an unfair trial to serve political purposes would have been an ugly stain upon our newly forming free country. It was absolutely critical that those British soldiers receive a fair trial represented by competent counsel. John Adams knew it, and ultimately so did the people who made him our second President. John Adams not only took the job, but he won the case. And it took a great Patriot like John Adams to have the nerve to stand up against great public outcry and speak the truth – for freedom’s sake.

It is a lesson we seem to have forgotten.

To those who scorn criminal defense lawyers, think upon this: Someday, God forbid, you may be arrested. When the whole world “knows” you are guilty even if you aren't, when the vast and virtually limitless resources of the Government are arrayed against you to ruin your life and take your freedom, there will be at least one person on this earth who will agree to stand up and fight for you – me or one of my colleagues. Even as you scorn us, one of us will take up your cause and single handedly, if need be, take on an opponent who has more lawyers, more experts, and more money than you can even imagine. As they seek to drag you through the very gates of Hell, one of us will be there to stand against them all - your last and best hope.

For my own part, I know that at the end of my career I will be able to “strip my sleeves and show my scars” won in the battlefields of freedom in which I fight. I will look back and remember courtroom battles where the stakes were not piles of money, but human freedom. I will remember glorious life altering victories and heart-wrenching defeat.

And like John Adams, I will know that I served my country well.