Why the Criminal Defense Attorney’s Role Is Often Misunderstood

Assuming you do not practice law and have never participated in a criminal proceeding of any kind, it’s quite possible that your only knowledge of criminal defense attorneys is what you have seen on television. That is unfortunate because the role of the criminal defense attorney is often misunderstood.

Hollywood and television tend to portray criminal defense attorneys one of two ways. First is the attorney who rides in like a knight in shining armor who goes to great and heroic lengths to clear the innocent. Second is the slime ball who knows his client is guilty but is intent on seeing that he beats the charges no matter the cost.

Neither portrayal is accurate. According to Salt Lake City defense attorney Anita Dickinson, the primary role of a criminal defense attorney is twofold: to represent the defendant in all legal proceedings and ensure his or her rights are protected under the law.

A System Rooted in the Constitution

Most of what makes the United States different, politically and legally, is encapsulated in our Constitution. Our legal system is tied directly to the Constitution in order to protect the rights of all those involved. So in any criminal case, defendants have certain constitutional rights that must be protected.

Other nations without such a strong constitutional foundation have proved time and again that governments not forced to protect individual rights will not always do so. Knowing that, protecting a defendant’s rights is the very first thing defense attorneys concern themselves with.

Have you ever seen a movie or TV show in which a criminal suspect refuses to speak to police without an attorney being present? Having an attorney at your side during criminal questioning is a constitutionally protected right. Investigators cannot force suspects to converse without having an attorney present.

Protecting Rights Throughout

Dickinson says that defendant rights do not start and end in the interrogation room. Throughout the entire criminal process, defendants are afforded certain rights that law enforcement and courts are not allowed to trample. Still, defendants are not expected to know those rights. They also aren’t expected to have the knowledge or skill to adequately defend themselves. Thus, defense attorneys are there to protect their rights throughout.

The defense attorney will usually insist on being present whenever a defendant is being questioned. She will also be present for every court hearing and legal consultation. She will stand as the defendant’s advocate during trial, ensuring once again that the defendant’s rights are not ignored by the court.

Holding the Prosecution Accountable

The other thing defense attorneys do is hold prosecutors accountable. Under our Constitution, criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. What does that mean in a practical sense? It means that defendants are not required to prove their innocence in court. Instead, it is the prosecutor’s responsibility to prove defendants are guilty.

This is an important distinction that cannot be overlooked. That is why defense attorneys go to great lengths to impress upon juries how this is supposed to work. They want juries to fully understand how the presumption of innocence protects their clients from prosecutorial misconduct. They want juries to know that if prosecutors cannot prove their case, defendants must be acquitted.

Without experienced and committed defense attorneys, criminal defendants stand very little chance of getting a fair trial in which their rights are fully protected. For defense attorneys, it is not about being a hero. It is about doing what is right under the law. There are laws that govern how criminal cases are supposed to proceed. Defense attorneys guarantee those laws are followed.