Are American Criminal Defense Attorneys Treated Fairly For Their Service?

The American justice system is based predominantly on the constitutional assumption that every person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty — but it doesn’t always feel that way in the courtroom of public opinion, and the public has a lot of opinions. High-profile cases can leave criminal defense lawyers as much in the spotlight as their clients. This is because talking heads and mainstream media generally favor one side of a case regardless of the information available, and the public often follows suit.

This is true even when clients aren’t guilty of the alleged crimes. 

Many of us, therefore, see criminal defense attorneys as slimeballs, even though every American citizen is guaranteed the right to a fair trial and professional defense, regardless of guilt. Someone needs to do the job — so why do we cast down the people who choose to do it? Not everyone who steps foot in a courtroom is guilty, after all. Shouldn’t we give them the benefit of the doubt? And shouldn’t we let their lawyers do the job?

Harvey Silverglate and Monika Greco write for WGBH: “If the most talented and in-demand criminal defense lawyers begin to hesitate before agreeing to represent the most unpopular accused, then those who are in the most trouble — those who need the most vigorous and effective defense — would have to suffer with mediocre representation (and, it must always be remembered, some of them will turn out to be innocent.”

The two believe, therefore, that the increasing polarization of public opinion could result in the greatly diminished effectiveness of the American legal system as a whole.

They write: “The fact that the evidence against a particular defendant might be — or at least seem to be — damning or overwhelming does not dilute the obligation cast upon the criminal defense bar. The fact that there are many who are either ignorant of or unsympathetic to this constitutional right does not alter the fact that lawyers have a special obligation to give vitality to the right.”

The disparity between the rights of American citizens and the courtroom of public opinion cannot be better described than by using the case of Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexually assaulting numerous women. When Harvard Law Professor Dean Ronald Sullivan opted to defend Weinstein’s Constitutional rights in court, Winthrop House, where he was a residential dean for a decade, was subsequently vandalized with messages like “Whose Side Are You On?”

Messages like that miss the point of our legal system and seek to diminish its credibility and effectiveness. Harvard then removed Sullivan — and his wife — from their deanships. When attorneys have to worry about their reputations and standing within institutions like Harvard Law — which should be held to a much higher standard than this — when taking on any client, there is something very wrong in the neighborhood. Clients innocent and guilty alike will have a lot to be worried about if this continues.