by Max Brantley
James has sent an opinion piece on the jury system. He does not address the Vance case specifically. But he says it's written in response to the column by John Brummett published in the Times. He sets out to answer these general questions (not, it should be noted, specifically linked to the Vance case):
How can you represent someone charged with doing that to someone? How can you represent someone that you know is guilty? How can you live with yourself when your representation of a guilty person allows them to escape punishment for what they have done? In sum, how can you do what you do?
James' full essay follows:
William O. “Bill” James, Jr.
Recently, events in my life have forced me to reevaluate my belief system and what I think is important when it comes to the doling out of justice to those charged with crimes in our society. How can you represent someone charged with doing that to someone? How can you represent someone that you know is guilty? How can you live with yourself when your representation of a guilty person allows them to escape punishment for what they have done? In sum, how can you do what you do?
The finding of guilt in a courtroom is not a moral determination, rather it is a legal finding.
It is not simply whether someone has done something against the law, it is whether that fact has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a group of twelve men and women. The jury makes the legal finding of whether some one is guilty or not. Any remaining question of moral guilt is sometimes simply the purview of their “Maker.” That is one fact finder that always knows the truth.
The problem with humans is we don’t always know the truth. Sometimes, we think we know the truth, but sometimes we are mistaken. Our system of justice recognizes that and requires more than a suspicion of guilt or a story that makes someone look guilty. Our system requires that it be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When dealing with violent crimes, humans tend to want to believe that the person charged committed the crime. If the police got the wrong person, that means the real person is still out there. No one wants to believe that may be the case. It is sort of like someone asking you if the $20 they just found on the ground is yours versus a random claim that you owe them $20.
The genius of our system is that it was long ago recognized that, as good as twelve jurors are at getting to the truth, they would not be perfect and the burden on the government should be high enough to protect the innocent from being convicted. You see, by protecting the rights of the accused, you actually protect the rights of all citizens charged with a crime. Innocent people are charged with crimes they did not commit. It happens every day. Innocent people have been found guilty and even put to death. Sometimes, it is the fault of a dishonest or mistaken witness. Sometimes, it may be attributed to a prosecutor. Everyone has their oaths to abide by and everyone has their job to do. Ultimately, the one person whose sole responsibility is the protection of the citizen charged with a crime is none other than the defense attorney.
The person most often responsible for the conviction of an innocent person is the defense attorney. I take the responsibility of defending an individual from charges made by the government very seriously. Even those that are guilty. All the government has to do is prove them guilty to a jury. My job is one of quality control. My goal is that no one is convicted for a crime unless the government proves it beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are many people that need to be locked up and have no business roaming free in our society. However, if we start locking up those folks or convicting them of crimes because it looks like they did something and do not require it to be proved, then we run an unreasonable risk of convicting innocent people. If we lower the bar to increase safety, we put more and more innocent people at risk of conviction.
There are many innocent law abiding citizens that disagree with me. Some are even all right with the idea of a few innocents being sent to prison to keep society safe. What they do not realize is that they are in danger just like those they are willing to sacrifice. Justice is not easy. Honest justice is even harder.
Ultimately, I believe everyone deserves the best defense available. The other day, someone accused me of being a sucker for the underdog. I may be. The only thing I can think of that would be worse than being in prison for something I did not do, is being in prison thinking that if someone would have defended me, I might not be there.
I said that I believe that everyone deserves the best defense available. On second thought, they may not deserve it, but our society has an obligation to give the best defense available. In the end, we will all get what we deserve. Even the worst among us have the right to be treated fairly. Not because they deserve it, but because the foundation of our society demands it.