As a criminal defense attorney, the question I am asked most frequently is, “How can you represent someone if you know they’re guilty?” What I have learned in my 24 years of defending people who are charged with crimes—beyond the fact that we have a right to be presumed innocent, the burden of proof is on the government to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, and the sixth amendment right to counsel—is that there is always a story.
Nine times out of 10, the people I represent have suffered some type of abuse, trauma or loss that most of us can’t comprehend. I have heard stories that would curl your hair. One client’s mother shot his father in front of him when he was 9 years old. Another client was molested by her father. Some are simply prescribed pain medication by a physician after an injury or surgery only to become hopelessly addicted to opiates.
Surviving that type of abuse changes a person, literally. It changes your brain chemistry. It robs you of any sense of self-esteem or regard for oneself. Many people who suffer abuse turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. That can lead to a whole host of problems and legal issues, including, not the least of which could be a DUI, or worse, vehicular manslaughter.
When I stand before a judge at sentencing for a client, I often say, “Your honor, but for the grace of God, go you and I.”
When we see people driving around town in fancy cars with a smile on their face, that does not mean they are not broken. It could be that they are trying to compensate for a deep sense of worthlessness and self-loathing. The smile could be a mask to hide their pain. It could be that they just don’t want the world to know how devastated, embarrassed and humiliated they are about the choices they made, even if they were driven by an old, deep wound.
So, if someone in your community is facing criminal charges, don’t shun them. Don’t judge them. Don’t assume you know anything about them or their situation. Be compassionate and merciful. Because, but for the grace of God, go you and I.
Diane Bass, San Juan Capistrano