Under the state and federal law, a defendant in a criminal case is presumed to be innocent. This presumption requires that the People have the burden to prove a defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Unless the evidence proves that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he or she is entitled to an acquittal (i.e., a legal finding of “not guilty”)
Nobody objects to a lawyer defending a person who is actually innocent of committing the crime for which they are charged. But many cannot understand how an attorney can morally defend a person who did, in fact, commit a crime.
One secular rationale for representing a criminal defendant and, in some cases, forcing the prosecution to prove its case in an adversarial trial, is as follows: If the law permitted anyone to be convicted of a crime without requiring that the case be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, then our life, liberty and freedom as United States citizens ceases to exist and tyranny will reign. Unchecked, the government may abuse the innocent as readily as the guilty.
Looking to the Bible for guidance on this issue, some cite Jesus, who was called upon to judge the woman caught “in the very act” of adultery, which was a capital offense. Instead, Jesus defended her (John 8:1-11)…Successfully. Jesus defended the accused woman who, it appears, was the factually guilty of the wrongdoing! And Jesus charged her to thereafter “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Likewise, an attorney representing a wrongdoing party can many times work out a solution that is more beneficial to all involved rather than the administration of “blunt justice.” Further, like Jesus did in the above example, a Christian attorney may, in certain appropriate conditions, be able to minister to the spiritual needs and struggles of his or her client as well.
In order to have a “fair trial,” (which democratic societies should strive for) the accused person, like the prosecuting government, also has a lawyer on his or her side, standing by the person, and advocating on his or her behalf. However, a lawyer, defending an accused person, ought not to lie, hide or destroy documents, twist and distort evidence, or obscure the truth.
A criminal defense attorney once told me that, regarding his drunk driving and/or traffic ticket cases, he would contact the police department and find out when the arresting traffic officer was on vacation or off duty. Then he would seek to schedule the trial on a date when the officer was on vacation or not on duty. With the arresting traffic officer not available as a witness to testify against his accused client, the overscheduled court would often dismiss the case. In my opinion, this oversteps the line of legitimate advocacy.
Nevertheless, in the adversarial design of the courtroom, an attorney at law must advocate for the client by emphasizing and capitalizing on the favorable evidence while seeking to minimize, neutralize or negate the unfavorable evidence against his or her client. Thus, as a partisan advocate, one is duty bound to represent the defendant zealously, but within the bounds of the law. Thus, in the big picture, a highly zealous yet ethical attorney aids the cause of imperfect secular justice rather than perverting it.
A Christian lawyer is a peace-maker. But, when the necessary or beneficial, he or she will, like David taking on Goliath (1 Samuel 17), be a formidable warrior and adversary. Yes, sometimes peace and justice must come at a price.
Thus, in this writer’s opinion, there is a place for a Christian attorney to represent criminal defendants whether they be wrongfully charged or not. But a Christian lawyer must be on guard to not overstep the bounds of legitimate advocacy (Proverbs 4:23).
Related article: May a Christian be a Lawyer?