By now, the new Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” has taken social media and other news outlets around the world by storm. While the main focus of the series is convicted murderer Steven Avery, viewers also get an elaborate and in depth look at how his case is handled by Avery’s 2 defense attorneys. We get to see the defense team discuss evidence and strategy outside of the courtroom and watch them go to work in front of a judge and jury.
In one of the more powerful scenes of the series, criminal defense attorney Mark Strang makes an observation that is sure to ring true for most trial attorneys. “There’s a big part of me that hopes Steven Avery is guilty of this crime,” says Strang. He continues, “Because the thought of him being innocent of this crime and sitting in prison again for something he didn’t do…I can’t take that.”
Strang is able to express to the audience the frustration and pressure that a criminal defense attorney feels when they truly believe that their client is innocent. As many attorneys in his position do, Strang begins to develop very deep personal beliefs about his client’s innocence that take his representation to a whole new level.
But are all defense attorneys required to believe their clients are innocent?
As an attorney first comes into contact with a client and the details of their case, they may begin to develop their own impressions or ideas as to the guilt or innocence of the person they are representing. Contrary to popular belief, attorneys are human too and deal with their own set of internal prejudices and intuition. It’s tough to ignore gut feelings no matter what your job is.
What people outside of the legal world don’t realize is that a defense attorney sees a case from two points of view – their own and the court’s. No matter what their own personal opinion or feelings are in regard to their client, they are instantly and constantly looking at the case with an eye for how a judge and jury might view the facts. Regardless of their client’s factual guilt or innocence, an experienced attorney is more concerned with their legal guilt or innocence.
Honesty in Court
So what happens when your client confesses his or her guilt to you? How will that impact your ability to defend him or her?
It’s important to keep in mind the strict rules and ethics that an attorney must abide in a court of law. No matter how strong the evidence is or how much the defense attorney wants to win the case, it is still illegal and unethical to knowingly deceive a judge or jury. Once your client tells you that they are guilty of the crime they have been charged with, you can no longer make statements of his or her innocence in court. Additionally, you cannot call on your client to give evidence that you know is untrue or false. This would make you a party to their perjury.
Does Your Belief Matter?
If you are a defense attorney, you may have had a previous client ask you directly if you believe they are innocent. The truth is, it really shouldn’t matter if you believe your client is guilty or innocent – you still have a job to do. It’s okay to let your client know this. When a client asks if you believe they are innocent, respond with your own question – do you want my personal beliefs and prejudices to motivate me or impact the way I work?
What every client really wants is an attorney who is willing to explore every possibility in the case; to work hard to win the case regardless of his or her personal feelings. If every defense attorney were required to believe their clients’ innocence in order to represent them in court, we would have very few defense attorneys.
In many ways, it is more difficult to represent a client that you truly believe is innocent. Just as Attorney Strang pointed out in “Making a Murderer,” truly believing that your client is innocent adds a whole new level of pressure and strain knowing that a jury may feel differently.