There’s a lot going on in our world. As an American, I can’t help but think about, worry about, and be saddened by what is going on. What happened to George Floyd is wrong, and the officers should be held accountable for their conduct. But, as a criminal defense lawyer, the idea of circumventing due process to hold those officers accountable, as seems to be the rallying cry of many, is also scary and terribly worrisome.
In the Boston Massacre Trial of 1770, then-future president John Adams defended eight British soldiers who had killed five Bostonians. The killings were publicly and collectively termed the “Boston Massacre” within days after they had occurred. The five Bostonians killed quickly became martyrs for the Patriot cause. To describe Adams’ defense as unpopular would be a massive understatement. That his business would have taken a tremendous hit because of his defense of the eight British soldiers is a given. But he did it. Due to Adams’ defense work, Captain Preston, whom the prosecution argued gave the order to fire, was acquitted. And, when the trials of the remaining British soldiers were finally over, only two were convicted – and of the lesser offense of manslaughter, at that.
How and why did Adams defend the British soldiers? He did it for the same reasons we defend the indefensible case: because we, as criminal defense lawyers, hold an unshakeable belief in our justice system.
Several years later, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. That was followed by the US Constitution which was ratified on June 21, 1788.
Fast forward nearly 250 years, to the killing of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd’s death has been followed by days (and sure to be weeks) of protest — many peaceful but some riotous. It can be unsettling and uncomfortable, and it should be. Injustices are inhumane.
But, we also realize as criminal defense lawyers who believe in our Constitution, that just as surely as protestors have a right to speak out, so too, do the Minnesota police officers have a right to fair trials with zealous representation unclouded by personal judgment. It doesn’t mean we condone the conduct in any way; quite the opposite. It doesn’t mean we want to see the officers escape accountability for their actions; they should be held accountable for their conduct. It just means to keep the integrity in our justice system – a system designed to protect the innocent – we must have trials where the defense is just as vigorous as the defense mounted on behalf of the British soldiers by John Adams. Our justice system fails when there is a laydown, railroad job – from any side.
It takes a special kind of person – it takes a criminal defense lawyer – to fight for our Constitution, be a zealous advocate, and defend the truly indefensible cases. It takes a special kind of lawyer to be able to not let personal feelings interfere with their representation. There are some cases some of us choose not to take because we recognize our objectivity may be or become compromised, and that’s ok. We are all human.
We will all defend the unpopular, hated client at some point during our careers. We have all been asked (at least a dozen times) “how do you defend someone you know is guilty?” And we all know, and believe to our very core, the answer to that question. We believe in and protect our Constitution. That is just what great defense lawyers like John Adams do. They stare into the abyss and march forward giving it their all to protect our justice system for all of us.
Please be a part of the Declaration Readings happening in your area this Independence Day.