Why I don’t do criminal defense

I used to be a criminal defense lawyer. More than that, I was a public defender – I had the cases for the poorest and most hopeless of defendants. There were some who scammed the system, who could afford to hire a lawyer but lied about their income and assets to get a public defender for whatever reason, but most were people who desperately needed a lawyer and couldn’t afford one.

I worked the full gamut of cases – from minor shoplifting and trespass all the way up to child molestation and murder. I worked hard on every one of my cases to get the best result for my clients. Most often that result was a negotiated guilty plea where the defendant could close his/her case and know exactly what was going to happen: how much time (if any) in jail, how much of a fine, conditions of probation, and so on. On the other hand, I also did a lot of trials – all public defenders do. I got good results, too. Word got around the county jail that if you wanted to beat your charges, I was the public defender you wanted. I felt good about that, because it meant that I was good at my job and people were noticing.

I believed, and still believe, that it is imperative for any person accused of a crime to have competent (and preferably more than competent) representation. I was proud of my work and of representing people against the power of the state. But somewhere along the line, I started hating my clients. I still worked hard and did a good job, but I didn’t feel good about it any more.

Very nearly all of my clients were factually guilty – that is, they did something very close to what the police arrested them for. It may have been different in minor details, but basically, they did it. I was okay with that, because the guilty need representation even more than the innocent. In the time I did criminal defense, I had a total of three clients (out of thousands) who I was convinced were completely and factually innocent of anything they were charged with. All three of these defendant had their charges dismissed fairly early on. They weren’t the problem. The problem children were the guilty ones.

They would swear up and down they didn’t do this, then plead guilty and swear up and down to me that they would stay on the straight and narrow from then on, and a few months later they would be back on my case load for something else. Worse, we would go to trial and get an acquittal and they would then start to feel bulletproof and go do something much more serious and come back to me and there would be nothing at all that I could do to keep them out of prison.

There were two clients that convinced me to get out of criminal defense.

First one was a child molester who had previously been convicted of child molestation in another jurisdiction. This child molester protested innocence and insisted on a trial in face of very strong evidence. I was 100% convinced of this person’s guilt, but that didn’t matter – I was going to fight the good fight. We went to trial and the jury deliberated for about 6 hours and came back with a complete acquittal – Not Guilty on all counts. As the verdict was read, defendant placed a hand on my shoulder and said “oh, thank god.” I recoiled away – literally jumped and said “don’t touch me!” I didn’t plan it or think about it – it was just an instinctive recoil. As I looked at the jury right then, I could tell by their expressions that they knew they had made the wrong choice. Some few days later, I spoke to one of the jurors who confirmed that. They had been very much on the edge of guilty or not guilty, and decided to err on the side of caution because they did not want to risk sending an innocent person to prison. That defendant has since been arrested and convicted of a much more serious sexual assault against a child. It’s years later and I still sometimes have trouble sleeping because of that case.

Second one was a client charged with felony domestic violence. I ran into an ethical dilemma and had to leave the case to a conflict attorney. It eventually went to trial and I happened to be in the courtroom on other business when the jury came back with the verdict. They found the defendant guilty and I was happy about it. That night, I thought about my reaction to the verdict, to the child molestation defendant, and about my general growing dislike of all of my clients, and realized that I had to get out. I started looking for a job the next week and was gone about 3 months later.

I love public defenders and defense lawyers. They do good and important work protecting the rights of people charged with crimes. Public defenders do it with completely inadequate pay and with usually poor working conditions. They don’t get to choose their clients (public defenders don’t get to be the “DUI lawyer”), but rather they take whatever horrible thing some poor sap is charged with that comes across their desk. I salute them all, but there is no way I can do that work ever again.


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