In response to a recent blog post, we received a comment from an angry reader regarding a sentence of probation for a war veteran who was found guilty of animal cruelty:
“So, are you proud you helped this despicable person with anger issues and total lack of compassion get away with a slap on the wrist by pretending he didn’t know his machete was a weapon? It’s because of people like you others considers lawyers to be scum and liars. Hope you never get to enjoy the bloody money you got paid for this case.”
It’s not an uncommon sentiment, though expressed with a little more vitriol thanks to the protective anonymity of the internet. Often, people ask us: how we can defend criminals? How do we sleep at night? How do you feel when you get someone off for a crime you know they committed?
We wanted to take a moment to address some of these questions.
First, defense attorneys are citizens of the communities we live in. We don’t want high crime or violent people roaming the streets any more than any one else. We don’t smugly smile and high five each other when a dangerous person goes free. We aren’t callous to those who are truly victims of the criminal acts of others.
But we do believe in the Constitution. We believe that the United States has one of the best systems of justice in the world. But, for that system to work right, those in charge have to do the right work. Someone has to “watch the watchers.” Police, law enforcement, prosecutors – they do not have a monopoly on the truth. Sometimes, they lie. One needs to look no further than some of the most recent headlines of exonerations of law-abiding citizens who have been wrongfully arrested, unjustly convicted, and illegally imprisoned: Brian Banks, Michael Morton, Hannah Ruth Overton, Manual Velez. All victims of overzealous prosecutors who violated the constitution and the rules of professional conduct all in the name of getting that conviction, most likely so they can tell voters that they are “tough on crime.”
So we make sure they follow the rules. We make sure your rights are protected. We make sure that children do not lose their parents and families are not torn apart by overzealous prosecutors or obsessive police.
There are times when our job is not easy. One of the hardest things a defense attorney faces is having to defend someone who has done something terrible; who has made a horrendous mistake; who deserves to be punished for what they have done. “Not guilty” is not always the goal – sometimes we work to obtain a fair punishment, not an acquittal. We fundamentally believe in people and that everyone deserves a second chance to do things right.
In the case of Mr. Mendiola, for which our anonymous commenter has taken such graphic exception, that was exactly the case. What was not included in the newspaper was that Mr. Mendiola didn’t stab his dog to death; he didn’t stab his dog at all. He didn’t own a “machete”, he owned a large hunting knife that was eight to ten inches long at best. He made a terrible decision when he struck that dog, but what the reporter didn’t tell you was that he struck the dog with the knife inside of its sheath and he struck the dog with the broad side of the knife in a spanking action. But, that knife cut through it’s sheath and cut the dog deeply. The dog was taken to the vet, but the bleeding couldn’t be stopped.
For this, the state asked that Mr. Mendiola, a man who served his country admirably – who had never been convicted of a felony in this or any other state – be imprisoned for 8 years. It was our feeling that 8 years was an excessive punishment that did not fit the crime. It was our job to make sure that the jury knew Mr. Mendiola before they decided how to punish him for his mistake. We think it is important that the judge and jury deserves to know all of the facts – not just the facts that the prosecutor thinks are important – when deciding whether to take a man’s most fundamental right, his freedom, away. And when the jury had all of the facts – many of which the prosecutor ignored or twisted to make his case – the jury, not the defense attorney, made the decision that Mr. Mendiola deserved a second chance. They awarded his probation, under very strenuous terms and conditions, and asked that he get treatment for the PTSD that he suffered while fighting for our country.
In our opinion justice was served. The defendant, who broke the law, received a felony conviction that will follow him for the rest of his life. But, his punishment was limited because of his service to his country and the fact that he had led a law-abiding life up until these terrible events. The system worked.
Defense attorneys play a critical role in our justice system. We balance the power of the prosecutor to imprison its citizens with unfairly harsh sentences. We make sure the police obey the constitution and respect your rights while enforcing the law. Like any job, there are times when that job is not easy and the cases are not always black and white. As in life, we are surrounded by grey. And, like the police and prosecutors, there are bad apples that give defense attorneys a bad name. But by and large, we do what we do to protect the innocent; to protect your rights; to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. So, angry commenter, God forbid you should ever find yourself falsely accused, or the target of aggressive prosecutors who want to lock you up and throw away the key when you make a terrible mistake at the lowest point of your life.
But if you do find yourself in such a position, we will be there to protect you.