In many countries’ legal systems, a person accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That concept may be phrased differently in different systems, but the basic idea is that the prosecution has to prove that the defendant is guilty. Most people would tell you that that assumption is a good idea as it makes it less likely that an innocent person would be ‘railroaded’ into prison. It also helps ensure that everyone gets a fair trial.
It also means though that lawyers sometimes defend very unpopular clients and get involved in very difficult cases. As a wise attorney I know has said, the job of defending counsel is to defend, not to judge. But that job is a lot harder when a defendant has already been found guilty in the ‘court of public opinion.’ Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.
We see a bit of this in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. Hercule Poirot takes on a sixteen-year-old case of poisoning when Carla Lemarchant hires him to find out who killed her father Amyas Crale. Crale was a famous artist who was painting a portrait of his mistress Elsa Greer when he was murdered. At the time, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted. And there was plenty of evidence against her too. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to clear her name. One step that Poirot takes is to discuss the matter with Montague Depleach, defending counsel in this case. Depleach explains that there was a lot of sympathy for Caroline as her husband had been unfaithful to her. But even he admits that he’s always thought she was guilty. And so, as it turns out, has everyone else. Depleach is a skilled attorney with a good reputation, but that wasn’t enough to make people question their assumptions about Caroline Crale. You could say he was fighting a proverbial uphill battle against the presumption of her guilt.
In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small town of Wrightsville to get some peace and quiet for writing. He takes a guesthouse on the property of town leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. That’s how he gets involved in their family drama. The Wrights’ youngest daughter Nora was engaged to Jim Haight when he jilted her, leaving town with no explanation. Now he’s back and against everyone’s wishes, he and Nora resume their relationship and marry. Then, Nora becomes mysteriously ill. She recovers, but then becomes ill again. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s come for an extended visit, is killed at a New Year’s Eve party when she has a poisoned drink intended for Nora. Now Haight is arrested for murder and the evidence is against him. So is the town. The Wrights are not just powerful, but popular. Eli Martin takes on the task of defending Haight, and it’s not easy. For one thing, there is convincing evidence against Haight. And that’s to say nothing of motive, as Haight stands to inherit if Nora dies. In the end only Nora’s sister Pat and Ellery Queen really believe that Haight could be innocent and it takes all of their efforts to prove that they’re right.
One of the best-known (and in my opinion, most powerful) examples of a lawyer taking on an unpopular client is in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama is a small Southern town where racism is more or less an institution. Certainly it’s deeply ingrained in the culture. So when Mayella Ewell, who is White, accuses Tom Robinson, who is Black, of rape, the town is up in arms against him. In fact, he’s nearly lynched before his case can even be tried. Well-known lawyer Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case and prepares to defend him, a decision that puts him and his children in some danger. But that doesn’t stop Finch from carrying through on his commitment to defend his client as vigourously as he can. That commitment drives Finch to find out the real truth about what happened.
John Grisham’s A Time to Kill deals with a very difficult case for attorney Jake Brigance. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is viciously attacked and raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small town of Clanton, Mississippi is shocked at the incident and there is a great deal of sympathy for the girl and her family. But Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined not to let Cobb and Willard escape justice. So he lies in wait for them and as they go into the courthouse, he murders them. Now the town is tragically divided and Brgance walks a proverbial minefield as he does his best to defend his client. And he’s up against a considerable force too, since there are some powerful people who want Hailey found guilty or worse. And after all, there’s little doubt that Hailey committed the killings.
In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, we meet attorney Andy Woods. He has the thankless task of defending seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been accused of murdering Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. Rowley isn’t exactly a ‘misunderstood, nice young boy.’ He’s been in trouble with the law numerous times, and he s both rude and cocky. But he is still entitled to counsel. Besides, he’s part-Aboriginal, and nobody much wants the legal and political repercussions of giving the appearance of racism. So Woods is reluctantly given access to his client, the necessary reports and so on. Still, he is not in the least popular with the police:
‘..when he announced his reason for being there [at the police station]…any pretence of civility disappeared quicker than you could say ‘Aboriginal Legal Service.’ Announcing that you were not only a criminal lawyer, but a criminal lawyer subcontracted to the ALS was tantamount to announcing that you were a paedophile with a rampant case of swine flue who’d recently returned from a baby-seal-bashing expedition around the Arctic Circle.’
As it turns out, not even Woods’ client is particularly helpful or grateful to him.
In T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton, the body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, She was stabbed before being thrown over the cliff, and blood and other evidence suggest that her murderer is Elton Spears. He’s a troubled young man with a history of mental illness. He isn’t exactly a likeable client and can’t do much to defend himself. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows the young man and agrees to take the case. He briefs barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, and the two go to work to try to find out what really happened to the victim. As the reader learns, it’s a very tricky case for Harwood…
One of the more difficult things attorneys do is defend clients who are unpopular, especially in heated and controversial cases. But it’s part of the job and it happens a lot. And I haven’t even mentioned novels where it’s the prosecuting attorney who has to take up an unpopular side…
On Another Note….
My sincere thanks to Rebecca Bradley, who invited me to stop by her blog today. I’m really honoured. Please come pay me a visit there and find out some background stuff about In a Word: Murder that you only thought you knew. And no, I’m hopeful I won’t need my lawyer…
While you’re there, you’ll want to soak in Rebecca’s terrific blog. It’s a wonderful resource for crime fiction readers and writers. Oh, and Rebecca hosts a great online book club.
Thanks, Rebecca, for your support of this project!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Gordon’s Allentown Jail, made popular by The Seekers and The Kingston Trio.