We believe in ‘innocent until proved guilty’ — unless a defense attorney is up for office
I have had a very satisfying 57-year legal career — with a few more to come, I hope. I was a prosecutor who sent a number of murderers to the penitentiary, I served an East African country as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I tried cases on behalf of poor people as a legal aid lawyer in Chicago, where I later served for many years as the Cook County public guardian. At the age of 32, I argued and prevailed in a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court. For the past 17 years, I’ve been a judge.
But based on positions taken recently by both major political parties, I guess I am forced to apologize for being a criminal defense attorney. During those years, I successfully represented at least seven people charged with murder.
Recently, Republicans attempted to eviscerate the reputation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson by pointing out that she had the temerity to represent people charged with crimes. The other day, I watched a commercial on television in which the other party attacks a candidate running for office in Illinois because he also represented people whom the state had charged with various criminal offenses.
But wait a second.
Our justice system is built on the bedrock presumption that anyone charged with a criminal offense is innocent and that the prosecution must prove that person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Our justice system can be successful only if qualified lawyers fight for their clients and insist that the prosecution prove its case.
Further, the attack on Jackson and the candidate running for office presupposes that everyone they represented was, in fact, guilty. Indeed, in some cases, the prosecution has unintentionally charged the wrong person. In others, the person may be overcharged, so the lawyer may work to get the client a more realistic penalty based on the facts. At times, there may be extenuating circumstances, self-defense, manslaughter rather than intentional murder, and insanity. Our system works best when competent defense counsel works to bring out these facts and defenses.
In some nations, of course, a person is presumed guilty if charged by the government. Defending that person is a facade. Indeed, if defense counsel is too aggressive he or she will end up in the gulag. And I for one would not want to live in such a place. Further, I suspect that no one attacking Jackson and the candidate would consider living in such a place.
Some of our most famous and patriotic politicians have acted in the highest traditions of our legal system and represented those charged with criminal offenses. John Adams, our second president and one of our nation’s Founders, famously — and successfully — represented British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre.
Illinois’ most famous politician and citizen was also one of its most successful and sought-after criminal defense lawyers: Abraham Lincoln.
The history of anyone seeking a higher office should be scrutinized, of course. But criticizing a lawyer for representing a person charged with a crime is an obvious cheap shot.
How the attorney represented that defendant may be a proper consideration — but not the representation itself.
— Patrick Murphy is a Cook County Circuit Court judge. He is also a onetime Cook County public guardian and worked with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.