Inevitably, I get the question "How can you be a defense attorney?" Or, "How can you defend someone you know is guilty?"
I give a standard answer. The defense attorney is there to check the power of the police and the prosecutors. The defense attorney is there to make sure that the constitution is followed, so that the defendant's rights are protected. If the defendant's rights are violated today, the police are going to be walking into my house without a warrant tomorrow. Those are important ideals--definitely worth working for.
But I have a deeper reason for the representation too. It comes from my belief that all people are made in God's image and are therefore valuable. No matter what someone has done, that person is valued by God enough that Jesus came and lived and died for them. So they are worth treating with dignity and respect. Often the system is an inhuman and inhumane system that steamrolls over people. I can be the touch of humanity that allows the defendant to be listened to, if not always understood.
My job is really about mitigating the damages that the client has caused in his own life. Very rarely is it possible to "get someone off" scot-free. But it is possible to tell the client's story to the people who have power over his future because of his bad decisions. In every case, I'm the only person who's shouting from the rooftops the mitigating circumstances. Not everyone who commits a crime actually does it with malice and should have the book thrown at him. In fact, a surprising percentage of my clients turn out to have mental disabilities. They desperately need protection and advocacy.
Maybe this will change for me if and when I'm representing someone who has given himself or herself over to evil. I know those people exist; they just haven't come my way yet. I'm sure that I'll have to work through that when that day comes.
But for now I'm left with that picture from Matthew 25, where Jesus is talking about how we will know at the end of time who his followers actually are:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
I think that my clients are "the least of these" in our society, and it's really a privilege to be able to love them, minister to them, and advocate for them in a very real, very practical way.