Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The End of This Week and Thoughts about the Morally Ambiguous Job of Criminal Defense

It is Friday evening, and I am very glad to be at home. The weather is very good outside, the view of the mountains is really great, and I don't have any responsibilities to tend to right now.

I am tired. I am not sure why I felt so tired this afternoon as court ended for the week. But, something about the back and forth of cases, the back and forth with judges, and even the back and forth with clients had me worn out. By the "back and forth" I guess I am trying to talk about the emotional tension involved in trying to do my job as a criminal defense lawyer in the criminal justice system.

Working as a lawyer with the Public Defender's Office is not the easiest job - not just because we have a lot of clients to represent, but also because it is a job which is morally ambiguous. We do our work as those who represent the poor who are charged with crimes because we believe that the poor are entitled to a real defense when charged with a crime. We take pride in our public defender's office knowing that we provide better representation for poor people than most private attorneys in our county provide to clients who can afford to pay for legal services. But, we don't get to choose our clients.

And, clearly when you are representing a lot of people charged with crimes, it happens at times that you are working hard and offering your legal skill and knowledge to help someone who is hurting others. Of course, there are many cases in which the question of guilt is not clear or in other cases, an innocent person has been charged, arrested and put on trial when they did nothing criminal at all. But, there are a good number of cases where the charge is valid, where a person has stolen or broken into a house, or harmed another person in some way. Of course, there are many crimes where the person might be guilty, but there is no real victim (possession of illegal drugs or possession of legal drugs without prescription).

As a criminal defense attorney, it is your job to zealously represent your client's interest, which means "try to beat the case if you can within the bounds of the ethical rules, whether it is a good case or not." Of course, if your client says: "I just want to plead guilty, and don't want to fight the case even if it might result in an acquittal," that is their choice. But, most defendants, when threatened with jail time, etc., want to try to beat it if their chances are pretty good, and the risk of trial is not too great.

And, having practiced criminal law now for almost 17 years, I can tell you that the breaks often come to the least deserving, and the hardest results often come to those who really deserve a break. If you want to try and convince me that everything that happens in criminal cases is "God's will" you are going to have a very hard time, unless you can first drug me so that I lose my mind. I have been there; I have been in the middle of it; I have seen horrible injustices, but, then again, some good and just results as well.

But, one thing that makes my morally ambiguous job easier is that often the crimes charged are crimes that people shouldn't be punished for - or, at least shouldn't be punished so harshly as the law requires. So, that makes it very easy to do everything possible to "beat the case." I can't believe any society in the world would decide to lock up people who are 20 years old for drinking beer, or for smoking marijuana. Personally, I really detest marijuana because of experiences I have had living with people that smoked it all the time in college. But, objectively, I have seen people do a lot more harm while drinking too much and I have never seen anyone taken to the hospital for marijuana overdose whereas I have for alcohol poisoning. Still, why are we locking people up for getting a buzz? That is crazy to me.

Why don't we save our jails for people who are going around robbing people or raping people or breaking into houses, etc.? Why do we want to put people in jail for decades for selling some substance to another person who wants it? I understand that drug abuse is a big problem, but so long as millions of people are out there who want to use a drug, some poor people are going to be willing to sell it to them while working for some rich people who make money off of this selling and don't have to face the risk of apprehension and jail.

But, then there are cases in which I really sympathize with the victim or victim's family: murders, sex offenses, robberies, burglaries, felony thefts, identity theft.

There are cases in which I would like to be the prosecutor, because I feel like I would know how to prosecute the case and get the defendant who is dangerous in jail for a long time. But, I am not a prosecutor, but a defense attorney. I have a personal preference for defending other people, not prosecuting and punishing them. But, over the years, I have had a few days when I have really wished the attorney on the other side would do a better job prosecuting. There are cases that the defense should win, and cases that the prosecution should win (of course, the overwhelming majority of cases are worked out by negotiation and agreement in which prosecution and defense compromise). And, the very large majority of those agreements involve a plea of guilty and some type of sentence for the defendant. There is a sense in which most people charged with crimes get a chance or two before "the hammer really comes down on them." But, this is not always the case.

It would leave my soul at peace if the State would win when it is truly just, and the defense would win when it is really just and that negotiated agreements would be truly just. And, when it is really just, for me, does not always mean when the State has charged a defendant who is guilty is found guilty, nor does it mean simply that a defendant who is innocent is found not guilty (though it surely includes that). No, justice means when the result in the end is the will of God. And, God is not bound by human laws and systems of justice.

I do remember that God is merciful, and the God "who raises the dead." Sometimes human beings get another chance in life, a second chance. I like to see people get second and even third chances in life, just as I like to get second chances in areas of life where I have failed. I know there are cases where it seems too risky for the rest of society to let some individuals have a second or third chance at freedom. But, I have to trust that the rest of society will look after that. I am one who advocates for people having second and third chances in life, whether they seem to deserve it or not. There are surely enough straight-laced moral people in society who will be against that to keep the few of us who continue to advocate for those who are considered unworthy of being part of society in check.

Before I start a big trial, I pray: "O God, let your justice be done. Not the justice of human beings, but let your justice be done." I never know for sure what that might be. I try to do my job the best I can, abiding by the ethical rules, to "beat the case," and hope that something truly good and right is accomplished as the prosecutor tries to do her job the best she knows how and the judge and jury try to do theirs. And, as a system, we fail often, but not always.

It is easy to criticize the criminal justice system. We could do better. But, there is always going to be a lot of arbitrariness in it beginning with selecting whom to charge with crimes, to how seriously to prosecute those charged with crimes, to the zealousness and ability of attorneys who defend those charged, to the particular way a situation appears to a judge or jury who decides the fate of the one charged at trial and sentencing.

A good number of us who work in the criminal justice system (judges, lawyers, police officers) still really appreciate our Constitution that provides that no one can be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law, that anyone charged with a crime has the right to a jury trial, that a man or woman has the right to remain silent in the face of the demands of government to answer questions, and that anyone charged with a crime is entitled to have an attorney represent them - whether they can afford it or not. Our country's Constitution has built into it a strong suspicion of governmental authority. When government wants to charge someone with a crime and lock them away, we say: "you've got to prove he or she is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - otherwise, they walk."

A real respect is shown to individuals through these constitutional rights and their implementation in our criminal justice system. It is a system where many mistakes are made, where there are certainly some corrupting influences, but perhaps more than any other system in our society, it reminds us of the importance of each individual person in our society. Because when we treat the most despised person in society with respect and fairness, it secures our commitment to treat all people with respect and fairness. Maybe the core values of our criminal justice system are really not that morally ambiguous at all.

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