Opinion: Why defend the guilty? Because justice is important

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

I am called upon to defend the guilty. Yes, I wrote guilty, not accused. Generally, a jury finds a defendant guilty when the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, with admissible evidence, that the defendant violated a criminal law. Although the defendant may present evidence that he or she is innocent and may challenge the State’s evidence, a guilty verdict is a distinct possibility.

Recently, I defended a man accused in an undercover sting operation. We came in second. Some of my cases are reported in the paper, but most of my public defender clients pass through the system out of the public eye. We argued that the defendant did not truly believe he was texting with an underage girl (he wasn’t – it was a male officer), but, after seeing the texts and video, the jury was back in less than one hour in unanimous disagreement with our theory.

It was a difficult case to win, and my client did not take my advice, to put it mildly. Still, whether someone proceeds to trial is not my call. A trial is a structured performance -- the prosecutor was professional, the judge was fair-minded, the witnesses explained their methods and the sentence was better than I expected. I like to think that my advocacy helped my client, as well as kept the wheels turning.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The judicial process, to my thinking, is where protests against the police should occur. This is where we hold the government accountable. We don’t always like or agree with a court outcome, but we submit to it, because extrajudicial outcomes are worse. In my experience, the police want to explain their actions, not to dissimulate or grandstand, but because they want to be held accountable too.

In the greater Atlanta metro, I have not encountered significant corruption in law enforcement. Sometimes overzealousness, sometimes apathy, but not corruption. Cops are trained to do a job, like attorneys, and they don’t like other cops who make their jobs harder. We show respect – the best cross-examination lets jurors draw their own conclusions.

In a bigger picture, criminal due process in America figures among our most precious values. Individual cases can be frustrating – why did this person want a trial? - but have their day in court anyone shall. It is at the bedrock of our Constitution, fundamental, ugly perhaps, but vital to the social trust. The unglamorous daily struggle of prosecution and defense represents what we believe as a nation.

This is especially true now that COVID-19 has affected our courts. Our counties have wrestled mightily with the ebb and flow of this virus, at times needing to postpone trials. It’s been a supreme test of our system to weigh the right to speedy and public trial against a public health hazard, and our judges have agonized over it. You can really see the spirit of the law itself in distress.

All I can say is, please consider getting a vaccine if you haven’t already, and try to be patient, as I have not always been with my clients.

No, I haven’t always been patient. Sometimes, on a Zoom plea, the jail has to look for someone in quarantine, meaning an officer has to bring a laptop to a remote holding area. The video connections don’t always work. When a needy client asks for one more explanation of something we’ve gone over a dozen times, it gets tense. But we try and try again.

With the case backlog and the recent uptick in crime, to which I can attest, it would be easy to resort to street justice or additional government subsidies to remedy things. These things are already happening, and they don’t work in the long run. The criminal justice system creaks but still works, and it is changing – as all things must to continue being effective.

Lord knows I’ve stood alone before, as I often do with my clients in court. Sometimes friends and family of my defendants say I’m the only one who’s ever tried to help that person. I doubt that, but it can seem that way – society rejects those who harm others, especially over and over. However, I’m proud to do this job because, in spite of the facts, in spite of the law, it is a vital function. I enjoy my colleagues and I like the counties where I practice – in a sense, it restores my faith, in spite of everything I see and read.

And maybe, just maybe, I get a kick out of representing the underdog.

Douglas D. Ford is a commercial litigation and criminal defense attorney in metro Atlanta.