Ben Lowenthal: The Question Every Criminal Defense Lawyer Gets Asked

Ben Lowenthal: The Question Every Criminal Defense Lawyer Gets Asked

People ask criminal defense lawyers about it so often that I just call it the Question. It comes in many forms: How can you sleep at night knowing your client is guilty? Why do you represent criminals? How do you represent those people?

I can see why so many people ask, even clients ask it. Nearly every night on the local news there’s a scary story about people accused of breaking the law. If it’s not a less-than-flattering mug shot, it’s in-court footage of someone in a jumpsuit and bound in chains. It’s not a good look, and it’s easy to wonder about the lawyer speaking on their behalf.

Over time, I’ve come up with different answers to the Question.

First, there’s the issue of guilt. How do we sleep at night knowing our clients are guilty?

Lawyers almost never know if their client is guilty. Most people don’t bring their lawyers with them when they’re going to commit a crime. Lawyers at a crime scene are witnesses and shouldn’t be lawyering in the case. And even if a lawyer had witnessed something, it doesn’t mean their client is guilty.

Guilt happens in court. A person isn’t guilty unless they’ve pleaded guilty or have been found guilty by a judge or jury. It means that in most cases until 12 people agree that the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, or if my client pleads guilty, then none of my clients are guilty.

Guilty of what is another issue. Take burglary for example. In Hawaii, burglary in the first degree requires entering or remaining unlawfully in a residence with the intent to commit a crime inside. Proof of someone’s intent to commit a crime isn’t always apparent.

Lawyers deal with evidence. There can be overwhelming evidence about some things like going inside a house, and almost no evidence about other things like intent to commit a crime. It’s not a lawyer’s job to determine how much is enough to find a person guilty. That’s left for the jury.

So how do we sleep at night? Easy. Knowing someone is guilty at the start of a case is nearly impossible. And even if there was a way to know, it wouldn’t matter.

Something more important is at work. Like most defense attorneys, I believe strongly in the right to counsel. A person targeted by the police, investigated to the point of arrest and then formally accused of breaking a criminal law is up against the weight and power of law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

You can read the full article at the Honolulu Civil Beat.