The blindfolded Lady Justice and the judge’s gavel, two representative items of the justice system, serve as a reminder of impartiality and order. (Lady justice with hammer / Jernej Furman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)
The blindfolded Lady Justice and the judge’s gavel, two representative items of the justice system, serve as a reminder of impartiality and order.

Lady justice with hammer / Jernej Furman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Fighting the ‘guilty’ verdict

The inner workings of being a defense lawyer

December 16, 2022

“Innocent until proven guilty,” we often say about defendants when we think of a fair judicial system. But is that the first thought that comes to mind when we see the struggling family of someone killed or hear about the young victims of a school shooting?

For defense attorneys, it is.

In a trial, the prosecution initiates criminal proceedings against a person. Local government officials elect or appoint these lawyers, like the local District Attorney, state Attorney General, or federal United States Attorney, and work to protect the public interest. The other end of the case is the defense representing the person prosecution is pressing charges against.

“The prosecution’s job is to get a conviction by presenting the evidence the way the facts have been presented to them by the police agencies or the complaining witness, which oftentimes is the victim,” said Jason Cueva, a criminal defense lawyer. “My job is to represent the defendant, their constitutional rights, and their theory of the case. Each of us has a constitutional role to fulfill and is responsible for mastering our set of facts.”

Criminal defendants are given some protection under the Sixth Amendment, by which they have the right to a speedy public trial, to a lawyer, to an impartial jury, and to know who the accusers are and the nature of the charges and evidence against them.

Being an advocate for the accused whose life and liberty is at stake is an endeavor worth pursuing in a free society.”

— Jason Cueva

Because the defense often represents someone the public views as an unforgivable criminal, many question defenders and the ethics of the system, especially in cases that have been widely publicized. But to them, their job represents something very different.

“Most of my heroes were always criminal defense attorneys, people challenging the system, people wanting to address injustices, and people wanting to make a better life for their clients in the community,” Cueva said. “Being an advocate for the accused whose life and liberty is at stake is an endeavor worth pursuing in a free society.”

Saving lives with the law

As the public watches lawyers fighting for defendants, the general idea that the attorneys either agree with the defendant’s actions or are passionately arguing for something against their own values emerges. However, this common misconception can be corrected with a similarity between prosecution and defense: the law.

In the realm of legal ethics, the amorality theory states that a lawyer should stay morally neutral to their client’s actions when representing them within the law, which might make defense attorneys appear immoral from a personal point of view. But the job of a criminal defense lawyer is not about morals.

“We all have our own personal moral value system that guides us through society, through our lifetime,” Cueva said. “But being a defense lawyer is about representing people, applying the law and the Constitution, and representing your client’s case, which requires a very neutral approach. It requires you to rise to a kind of a professional level that won’t be tainted by your own moral compass, which we are ethically required to check out the door before entering the courthouse.”

All attorneys must follow the laws and ethical guidelines that govern their practice. According to the American Bar Association, defense counsel must “serve as their clients’ counselor and advocate with courage and devotion; to ensure that constitutional and other legal rights of their clients are protected; and to render effective, high-quality legal representation with integrity.”

These legal standards are exemplified by Cueva and public defender Brian Matthews, an attorney who represents indigent criminal defendants — people unable to pay for a lawyer. Matthews develops a defense by reviewing the police report and interviewing his clients, often working with a team of investigators, paralegals, and sometimes social workers.

Throughout the years, Matthews has tried many cases and has argued before the state supreme court, always aiming to show his clients are not guilty or attempting to get them the lowest sentence possible. The most inspiring experience he had as a lawyer occurred when he worked with other attorneys to represent death row inmates.

“Everybody was committed to a good cause: saving people’s lives,” Matthews said.

As a defense attorney, Matthews has always been asked how he can defend someone he knows to be guilty. However, he normally does not know if his client is guilty himself.

“I don’t ask my clients, and it doesn’t make a big difference to me because it’s ultimately the government’s obligation to prove their case,” Matthews said. “If they can’t prove their case, the person should not be convicted, and that system operates to protect everyone.”

Generally, the plaintiff — the party bringing the claim — has the burden of proof. In criminal cases, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the only logical conclusion from the facts is that the defendant committed the alleged crime and that no other explanation can be deduced from the facts. On the other hand, the defense is not required to prove their case but has to ensure that their client is represented fairly.

“Defending someone requires creativity, empathy, a sense of justice, and a willingness to fight for the underdog. Our job is to creatively present the facts, raise reasonable doubt, and hold the prosecution to their burden of proof,” Cueva said.

I’m just standing up for their rights and, more broadly, for the rights of everybody.”

— Brian Matthews

In fact, defending a client does not equate to supporting their actions.

“It’s not that I’m defending someone and sponsoring or approving whatever it is they’re accused of doing,” Matthews said. “I’m just standing up for their rights and, more broadly, for the rights of everybody.”

For Matthews, representing his clients is a privilege.

“Once somebody’s been arrested, and especially if it gets publicized, I’m probably their only friend. Family and friends leave them; they lose their jobs and housing,” Matthews said. “They need somebody, and I’m happy to be that person, whether they’re guilty or not. Even if the person is guilty of the worst crimes, I want to be the one to stand next to them and say that the system is going to treat them as a human being, at least while I’m there.”

In the public’s eye

In a world where most people get their information online, the media unavoidably became a place to broadcast cases involving celebrities or controversial societal issues.

Take the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial that took place earlier this year. Instead of focusing on the allegations and facts of the case that could have sparked a conversation centered around mutual domestic abuse, media platforms portrayed the trial like a movie.

Entertained by the dramatized case, people shared videos and memes on the internet. Consequently, some platforms picked specific parts to publish that would generate the most engagement from their audience.

“They tend to kind of reduce it to what’s easy to report and what they think their readers or viewers will find interesting, so they rarely give a complete picture,” Matthews said. “In their defense, it’s sometimes impossible to do that within however many column inches you get or how much time you get on the news, but it’s never completely accurate.”

In that brief article, the media might even formulate two opposing sides, a good and evil.

“Generally, media coverage of publicized trials can become like sporting events, where the viewers tend to choose a side and get invested in the outcome. A one-sided portrayal may also influence the outcome and sway the public against the person on trial, undermining the courtroom,” Cueva said. “Everything is subjective.”

This subjectivity appears in the role human nature plays in determining public opinion on a case. After hearing or reading about the police arresting someone for an egregious crime, people tend to believe that the individual is guilty.

“As human beings, it’s easy to presume a person is guilty just because the evidence is shocking or what you hear on the news is sensational. It’s just how we’re inclined to think as law-abiding members of society,” Cueva said.

In one positive experience with the media, Cueva represented a fugitive who was on the run for over 40 years, during which he reinvented himself by becoming a college counselor, raising a family, and being a community leader.

“The media portrayed him in the most positive light by paying less attention to the crime that he committed some 42 years ago and focused more on all of his accomplishments,” Cueva said. “The outcome was favorable, partly because the public opinion was certainly positive.”

While this outcome turned out favorable for the defense, it nonetheless becomes difficult for people to form an accurate, fair conclusion when the media only gives snippets of the case or presents the trial from a tinted angle.

“The news is supposed to sell a story, and they might not have time to go through a preamble,” Cueva said. “But people should remember that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty and to keep an open mind.”

Without a good idea of the law, perspectives on a publicized trial turn inaccurate.

“I’ve noticed that most people are not informed of the law; they like to make opinions or statements based on what they think is happening,” said Supriti Bhopale, a Carlmont freshman who has participated in Mock Trial since first grade. “A lot of people do not take into account what is legal and what is not and are misinformed in that way.”

From her time participating in Mock Trial practices, Bhopale discovered how various pieces of crucial evidence can come in throughout the entire course of the trial. She suggests that people who want to know about a certain case listen to the full hearing to better understand all the evidence being presented.

“You’ll actually be hearing what’s happening in the courtroom — that is the way you’re going to get the most truthful facts because you’re hearing what’s going on word for word,” Bhopale said. “If you don’t have knowledge of the law or if you don’t understand the evidence being presented, then it’s not fair to create just a blanket statement of support.”

If people cannot listen to every witness’s testimony and closing arguments, it is still important to be well-informed of the case and the charges being made and to understand how information on the internet may only be a small part of what is really happening.

Even so, there may not be such a clear distinction between right and wrong.

“People like the idea of there being a good guy and a bad guy and being very black and white about that, and that’s rarely true,” Matthews said.

Black and white, or in-between?

When America’s founding fathers authored the governing documents of the new nation, they envisioned a judicial system that would rule according to the law, settle disputes, and unify the democratic society.

Contrary to their goal, the close votes for “guilty” and “not guilty” verdicts and debates over the specific wording of charges have left people wondering whether the system is truly fair.

“There are so many little nuances to the definitions of charges, and I think that’s where you find people nitpicking the definition and trying to get a lighter sentence,” Bhopale said. “There is sometimes a disagreement of facts: one witness will have their retelling of a story, whereas the other will have an entirely different perspective.”

Therefore, the right to a free trial rises in importance due to the many uncontrollable variables of each case. Juries may reach their verdict depending on various factors, like the way witnesses are portrayed and what evidence attorneys choose to present.

“It just really comes down to how the defense attorneys are able to present the information that makes their client not guilty on a legal level and to connect with the jury on an emotional level by making them think that the defendant could never commit whatever crime they’re being accused of,” Bhopale said.

The uncertainty before each case means that the accused is forced to rely on the defense lawyer’s best efforts to ensure that they receive impartial treatment.

While many want to think that the justice system is fair, it may not be. According to Cueva, the process is only fair to the extent that those responsible for managing it want it to be.

“Humans are the ones who are responsible for administering justice; justice is just a concept,” Cueva said. “The lawyer’s job is to make the process honest, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will always be fair.”

Matthews expressed a similar sentiment.

“I think it’s often not fair. I think the results of the system are often governed by your relative wealth rather than by justice,” Matthews said. “It’s better than most systems; it does treat people as individuals at times. But in many ways, it’s an epic failure because the recidivism rate is very high.”

In California, that recidivism rate — the rate at which convicted criminals re-offend — has averaged around 50% over the past decade.

“We have to rethink how we operate our justice system seriously, so we do it in such a way that actually prevents crime,” Matthews said. “Right now, that is not what is happening.”

About the Contributor
Photo of Grace Wu
Grace Wu, Highlander Managing Editor
Grace Wu is a senior at Carlmont High School in her third year in journalism. She is a managing editor for Highlander, Carlmont's student newsmagazine, and a staff writer for Scot Scoop. Outside school, she is also a student columnist and intern at the San Mateo Daily Journal. When she is not writing or editing, you can find her crafting a case as a trial attorney for Carlmont's Varsity Mock Trial team, volunteering at a nonprofit to raise awareness for childhood cancer, or spending time with friends and family. Visit her portfolio here!

Twitter: @_gracewuu

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