Friends ask me “How can you defend someone who commits domestic violence?” as if people are only entitled to defense if they are accused of littering or jaywalking. It’s a question people ask criminal defense lawyers all the time.
My answer is “All of my clients are presumed innocent. A lot of them really are innocent. And even if I know they are guilty, I also know they have the right to make the government prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a right that keeps us safe from tyranny.”
Every individual who is accused of a crime has the right to a fair trial and to be represented by a lawyer. Those rights apply to the innocent and guilty alike. My job in domestic violence cases is to protect the rights of the accused and to make the government behave reasonably. I’m proud that I do that job well.
Attorneys as counselors
I don’t represent clients charged with domestic violence crimes because I approve of abusing spouses or family members. I hope the victims of domestic violence get the help they need to live in a safe environment. I also hope that abusers get the help they need to change their behavior.
If a client tells me that he directed an angry act of violence toward a spouse or domestic partner, I urge that client to get help to prevent that behavior from reoccurring. Anger management classes and other programs designed to prevent domestic abuse make a difference in people’s lives. Jail sentences only feed anger.
Attorneys are more than hired guns. We are advocates but we are also counselors. Part of our job involves giving clients the benefit of sound advice that is based on the knowledge we acquire as lawyers. Sometimes that means referring clients to other specialists who can help them resolve emotional problems that underlie their legal problems.
During the course of my law practice, I’ve worked with therapists and other professionals who can help my clients overcome the experiences that caused them to become abusive. My ability to help clients improve their lives by referring them to treatment providers is one reason I represent people who are guilty of domestic violence. If I can help break the cycle of violence, I’m doing more good for my clients than a prosecutor or judge who thinks that jail sentences are the answer to all of society’s problems.
Protecting the innocent
Of course, when friends ask how I can represent someone in a domestic violence case if I know they are guilty, they assume that I always know the truth. In fact, I wasn’t there. I didn’t see what happened. All I know is that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence. If I don’t presume that my clients are innocent, who will?
Many of my clients are falsely accused. Their accuser may be telling a lie out of spite or a desire for revenge. One parent might accuse the other of domestic violence to gain an advantage in custody proceedings. Some accusers want the sympathy or attention that comes from labeling themselves as a victim. There are all kinds of motives for making false accusations of domestic violence. I represent the accused so I can expose those lies and protect the innocent from wrongful convictions.
Making the system work
Domestic violence convictions have serious consequences. Nobody should be exposed to those consequences unless the legal system has addressed their cases fairly. The criminal justice system is like a steamroller that crushes defendants who do not have a strong advocate to make judges and prosecutors see them as people rather than statistics.
There are two sides to every story. A victim of domestic violence has the right to be heard but so does the accused. Accusations are often blown out of proportion. Sometimes there is a mitigating explanation for the accused’s conduct. Even if my client violated the law and is prepared to accept a consequence, the consequence should be fair and proportional to the client’s misconduct. By making prosecutors and judges understand my client’s life and actions, I am often able to make them shut off the steamroller and behave reasonably.
The criminal justice system doesn’t work without criminal defense lawyers who are dedicated to making it work. That’s my job. It is a job I am proud to do well, whether my clients are accused of domestic violence or any other crime.