Hypothetical No More

Somewhere shortly after, "How do you defend someone if you know that he's guilty?" the conversation with curious friends and strangers sometimes proceeds to, "What if you defended someone, and he got off, and then he killed someone or something?  Wouldn't you feel responsible?"

Well, there's no more need to hypothesize.  It has happened to me, to a small extent at least, and now I can tell you how I feel.

First, the background.  I represented this client a few years ago.  I represented him on something where he wasn't really facing jail time.  It was more like a probation or parole hearing - if we lost, the terms of his parole would have been stricter, and if we won, the terms would have been more lenient.

The client had a very bad criminal record.  If I remember correctly, there was some kind of sex assault on his record, and there was also a homicide of some sort.  I don't remember if it was murder or manslaughter or whatnot that he had pleaded guilty to, but I remember that the homicide was related to the death of a witness in the original sex assault case.

Personally, this client was always nice to me - he was always a respectful, kind client.  And he was always accompanied by his girlfriend.  She was very pretty and nice, and just seemed to have it more "together" than he did.  If I relayed an instruction or a court date to her, I knew the message would get through or that my client would show up.

Throughout the case, I wondered if she knew how bad his criminal past was.  But, finally we had the hearing, and she sat in the audience through the whole thing as my client's whole criminal history was reviewed in great detail.  We won, and at the end, when we walked out, she thanked me profusely and was very appreciatively, and didn't seem the least bit shocked or confused at what she had heard. 

I heard recently from a former colleague that the client's girlfriend had been found dead, and that my former client had been arrested for her murder.  I haven't heard any update whether he has taken any guilty plea or whether he is going to trial.  I would guess, that, given his record, there probably isn't any plea offer on the table, but I don't know for sure. Now, obviously, he's presumed innocent, and I don't know whether he actually he killed her or not.  But, at this point, it's the closest I've ever come to the hypothetical, "represented someone . . . then they killed someone..."

So, how do I feel?  I feel sad.  The client's girlfriend seemed like a nice person.  I don't like it when people die, especially nice people.  I feel disturbed.  I guess even though I have represented a few people who have previously been convicted of murder or manslaughter (including this client), I still imagine that it takes a different kind of person to be able to kill someone, and that somehow I could recognize such a person.  That seems silly, I knew he had previously been convicted to killing someone (I never asked him whether he did it, or whether he felt that he had been falsely convicted, or anything like that), so it would be a fair assumption that he was capable of killing someone - but I guess that's just a false assumption that most people have - that if we met a murderer, we would know.  That every murderer would look like Charles Manson with a forehead tattoo or something.

Do I feel responsible?  Nah, not really.  It's hard to say whether I'd feel differently if my case had been responsible for him being released from jail, and that, but for my defense, he would have been in jail or prison and unable to kill his girlfriend.  But that wasn't the situation here.  (And I don't think the stricter restrictions he would have faced if we had lost the hearing would have made any difference either.)

I feel curious about how much she knew about his record, what explanations he gave her, and why she made the decision to stay with him even knowing about his record.  Obviously, she could have been killed by him even if he had no record, but it seems like she took more of a risk knowing his record.  She was a pretty girl, I'm sure she could have had a nice boyfriend without such a past, so who knows what went into her decision to date him.  Maybe she was blinded by love.

How fitting for a Valentine's Day post.  Have a good holiday, everyone.


  1. Can I give you a little good news? I heard from my daughter, who is also my Blog Daughter, that I'm about to become a Nana for the first time. Which, since you're MY BlogMama also means you'll be a Great BlogNana. Congratulations. (I think.)


  2. I've come closer. I'd only been a lawyer for a short time when I read in the paper one day that a guy I'd gotten out of prison, released onto the streets had just been indicted in a death penalty case. He'd been doing time for a violent felony when I got him out.

    I spent a few hours that day thinking about how I felt. I concluded that I was fine. Yes, I'd made the argument that got him out, but I didn't make the decision. The judge did. I did my job: Explain why my client should be released. Releasing him was, in fact, the right thing to do.

    If there had been any serious reason to imagine that he'd go and commit a capital offense shortly afterwards, I assume he wouldn't have been released. Human behavior is, ultimately, unpredictable. But our job is to make the pitch, to present and represent our clients. I'm comfortable with that.

    I have to add, though, that I was particularly pleased a year or so later to learn that the jury returned a not guilty verdict.

  3. I feel for you, dear colleague.

    I can't completely relate, but maybe I can empathize - I played a part in this recent debacle.

  4. It sounds like the girlfriend knew and maybe she didn't make a choice on who she fell in love with, but she made a choice of whether she stayed with him or not. You did your job. You reflected on the loss of her life. I think you've done what anyone else in your position would do and maybe even a little more...

  5. Hello Blonde Justice,

    I believe defense lawyers - to some extent - get a bum rap. Even - no, especially - criminals need good defenses, precisely because good defense lawyers play an important role in keeping the State honest.

    The most evil people - sociopaths - are precisely the best at concealing their nature. They don't have consciences and thus don't share many of our motives, but they recognize them in us. They are very good judges of people, and hence of what will best convince you how good they really are.

    There's no way to tell for sure if someone is a beating, rape or murder waiting to happen. We do have some good behavioral clues, courtesy of self-defense expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung.

    Keep up the good work!

    Jeff Deutsch

    PS: I've had the reverse of your experience with comment spam. For a long time, I had a captcha (word verification), but no moderation. I found that the captcha didn't stop the comment spam, so I've started moderating. And given your experience, I'm not cutting out the captcha anytime soon.

    PPS: Word verification - blenuose. And it's in blue letters, too!

  6. Been there. Twice actually. One involved a kid I represented in a drug case who was later arrested on a bad high-profile murder. In each instance I had a similar reaction. Always sad when someone is murdered, but certainly didn't cause any re-evaluation of what I believe.

  7. i read this post late...but it has struck something in my psyche...if i place myself in this girl's shoes..i feel heartbroken and shattered even in death..wonder if he shot her in the heart...

    your blog is refreshing and different..so i could not stop myself reading all the posts - specially the court room ones...if i finf it more educative is it ok if i start following your blog?

    thanks for an insight into the courtroom and the human angle attached to it..

  8. Flying, glad you found the post thought (and emotion) provoking. It'd be great if you follow the blog if you find it interesting. Thanks for your comment!

  9. I just happened upon your blog and I very much enjoy your writing and perspective.

    However, this post prompted me to comment, despite my lateness in coming to this topic.

    The relationship between your former client and his deceased girlfriend was most likely an extremely abusive one. The dynamics of domestic violence are complicated and there are many reasons why she may have stayed with him / was unable to leave him. It's even probable that she was killed trying to leave him.