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© 2005 Clifford C. Nichols, Esq.

Frequently, people indelicately pose the question: “How can you defend criminals?”  Reflexively, I always respond initially by saying, “Hmmmmmm.”

Setting aside the fact that their question wrongfully presumes the guilt of anyone who may only be charged with a crime, what I think they are really asking is: “How can you defend people I have prejudged in my mind’s eye to be scum?”  My answer, of course, depends on the time allotted. 

Never is there enough time to address, much less correct, the personal shortcomings of the people who would ask such a question, so I have given up trying.  Beyond that, however, if time is short, the short answer is, “I don’t.  I only defend those accused of crimes.”  I have found that easier than saying, “I defend them because they are frequently people not unlike you and me, and as such, it seems only fair to me that they be afforded the same rights and privileges under the law that I would expect to be afforded were I to be threatened with imprisonment.  You know … those little rights guaranteed by otherwise obsolete things like the Constitution that were intended to make us a relatively civilized and free country compared to some places like, say, China or North Korea.”

A complete answer, however, is even far more complex than that, and requires context for a full understanding.  So, should your time permit, consider the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1:  Shaking, my client has just received news that in California is bad indeed.  The District Attorney assigned to his case is young and won’t budge.  To settle he insists that my client plea to two felonies priorable under California’s three strikes law.  If he accepts the D.A.’s offer, he will live the rest of his life with two out of the three strikes hanging over his head.  One more offense at any time in his future could send him to prison for from 25 years to life.  It seems neither just nor fair to either him or me. To say the least, it is a horrifying prospect for a boy only fourteen years old.  After all, he had been only twelve when he had made the mistake of playing doctor with his ten year old cousin.  Yet, the D.A. thinks those thoughts irrelevant.  So, rather than settling, we set for the matter for trial.  In the end, both fairness and justice prevail. 

Scenario 2:  My client is a young man who is well aware of the fact that he committed a crime -- but to me that’s not what seems to be bothering him most.  For starters, his scabbed forearms are oozing blood.  His continuous scratching has removed much of the skin.   As we talk, his eventual self-destruction seems imminent.  Yes … he had desecrated a graveyard … but only after years of satanic worship under the wing of his mother … a long standing member of a witch coven.  Now, he appears to be seeking a way out.  Perhaps by the end of his case, however, he can be shown a path that will enable many of his wounds to heal … if he is able to stay the course. 

Scenario 3:  Here we are given a high school student whose ambitions of becoming a police officer are threatened because he brought a dead baby chicken to his high school speech class.  He bought it from a pet store that sold them primarily to feed to peoples’ pet snakes.  Per instructions given by the store owner, he then killed it (certainly more humanely than would another customer’s pet boa constrictor) and took it to class. 

When it was his turn to speak, he laid it down on the table at the head of the class, and except for his classmates’ predictably sad moans, nothing of significance happened until he spoke:  “If the sight of this dead chicken bothers you, you might want to ask yourself how you can possibly be in favor of abortion?”   Only then did the room explode with emotion. 

To me, it was evidence of his speech’s effectiveness entitling him to receive an A+.  The teacher, however, disagreed.  Were there any in the room who had missed my client’s point, she ironically, yet I’m sure unintentionally, drove that point home by insisting that he be charged immediately with felony animal abuse -- apparently oblivious to the indisputable fact that few, if any, chickens are ever allowed to avoid some kind of untimely death.  So, we wonder: if killing a chicken is a bad thing, why hasn’t Colonel Sanders been charged as a serial killer?  On the other hand, if it’s O.K. to kill a chicken to either feed a reptile or make a salad, would it not be fair to conclude that my client is being prosecuted not because he killed a chicken, but rather because of the politically incorrect content of his speech. Unfortunately, however, the D.A. does not seem to care about no steenkin’ constitutional right to free speech up until it’s his turn to exercise it.  He declares to the media that he intends to prosecute my evil client to the hilt.  As a result, we anticipate that a dismissal of the charges will be possible only at the end of a very long and painful process.

The question I would now put to you is, which of these clients did not need an attorney?

These cases were chosen because they reflect varying degrees of culpability that, in turn, highlight what they have in common -- each is about a person in need of help.  As a colleague of mine who is a friend puts it, “If they are guilty they need help and if they are not guilty they need help, and in either case I want to be available.”  Were it otherwise, perhaps we should also consider denying medical treatment to those shot in the commission of a crime until after their trial or denying the assistance of accountants to people compelled to undergo audits? 

The bottom line is at some point in each of our lives we all need help … we all have, or will, fall short of some standard at some time and need an advocate.  Are there any who can claim their conduct is without blemish?  If so, that person may well be the first since the time of Christ qualified to cast the first stone.  In the meantime, however, the rest of us may do well to remember that even the Christ was described by John as an advocate who appears even now before His Father to argue on behalf of all those who have sinned. 

For the moment, suspend your disbelief and assume that is true.  Are there any who would not say that’s a good thing?  Moreover, doesn’t this depiction of Christ sound interestingly similar to that of a criminal defense attorney?  If all of this were true, don’t you think that should make some who dislike criminal defense attorneys at least want to go, “Hmmmmm”? 
Cliff Nichols is an attorney practicing criminal defense/entertainment law in Santa Monica, California. He may be contacted regarding this editorial at either (310) 917-1083, http://www.cliffnicholslaw.com/ or http://www.thedailystand.com/

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