Randy Barnett, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and former prosecutor and defense attorney, has a particularly insightful op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Entitled, "Three Cheers For Lawyers: Don't Think A Good Defense Attorney Matters? Think Again," Professor Barnett expounds on the pivotal interplay of criminal trial attorneys and prosecutors in our adverserial system generally and more specifically in the context of the now-defunct Duke rape prosecution. Here's an excerpt:
The crucial importance of defense lawyers was illustrated in reverse by the Duke rape prosecution, mercifully ended last week by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's highly unusual affirmation of the defendants' complete innocence. Others are rightly focusing on the "perfect storm," generated by a local prosecutor up for election peddling to his constituents a racially-charged narrative that so neatly fit the ideological template of those who dominate academia and the media. But perhaps we should stop for a moment to consider what saved these young men: defense attorneys, blogs and competing governments.
Our criminal justice system does not rely solely on the fairness of the police and prosecutors to get things right. In every criminal case, there is a professional whose only obligation is to scrutinize what the police and prosecutor have done. This "professional" is a lawyer. The next time you hear a lawyer joke, maybe you'll think of the lawyers who represented these three boys and it won't seem so funny. You probably can't picture their faces and don't know their names. (They include Joe Cheshire, Jim Cooney, Michael Cornacchia, Bill Cotter, Wade Smith and the late Kirk Osborn.) That's because they put their zealous representation of their clients ahead of their own egos and fame. Without their lawyering skills, we would not today be speaking so confidently of their clients' innocence.
These lawyers held the prosecutor's feet to the fire. Their skillful questioning at pre-trial hearings revealed the prosecutor's misconduct that eventually forced him to give up control of the case and now threatens his law license. They uncovered compelling exculpatory evidence and made it available to the press; they let their clients and their families air their story in the national media.
There is no rule book for what prosecutors call "heater" cases like this one. Navigating the law, politics and publicity in such case is an art not a science. These fine lawyers displayed all the skills and tenacity that made me want to be a criminal trial lawyer after watching the television series, "The Defenders," when I was 10 years old.
Do you suppose that lawyers like these gained their skills only representing the innocent? Criminal lawyers are constantly asked how they can live with themselves defending those guilty of serious crimes. The full and complete answer ought to be that, because we can never be sure who is guilty and who is innocent until the evidence is scrutinized, the only way to protect the innocent is by effectively defending everyone.
As a prosecutor working "felony review," when I was in a Chicago police station at 3 a.m. deciding whether to approve charges, I had to evaluate the evidence as if I were a defense attorney. Where is the murder weapon? Where are the proceeds of the robbery? How credible are the witnesses? How was the identification of the accused conducted?
In this way, the mere prospect of a competent defense attorney scrutinizing the evidence in the future provides a powerful deterrent to pursuing weak cases even before anyone is charged. Thanks to defense lawyers defending the innocent and guilty alike, prosecutors generally win their cases because they avoid weak cases they may lose. (After the charging stage, a prosecutor's ability to avoid losing at trial by plea bargaining weak cases is a serious, but separate and complex issue.)
Paradoxically, the system's overall accuracy makes defending the truly innocent all the harder. While knowing that mistakes do happen, the accuracy of the system leads everyone, including defense lawyers, to assume that anyone who is charged is probably guilty. After all, they usually are. Notwithstanding the legal "presumption of innocence," in a system that generally gets it right, there is a pragmatic presumption of guilt.
Consequently, effectively defending the innocent usually requires the ability to prove your client's innocence. And that's not easy. Further, because representing the guilty consists mainly of negotiating pleas or knocking holes in the prosecutor's case, defense lawyers do not always develop the skills needed to effectively defend the truly innocent or, as important, know when to deploy them. Defense lawyers become as skeptical about their clients' claims of innocence as everyone else, if not more so. All this contributes to inadequate defense lawyering, which thankfully did not occur here.