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Defense Lawyers Reveal What Its Like To Work With Guilty Clients

What do you think is easier: defending someone who is innocent or guilty? Which do you think lawyers prefer? This thread will shed some light onto the private world of attorney-client relationships.

sphip asked defense lawyers of Reddit: What is it like to defend a client who has confessed to you that they're guilty of a violent crime? Do you still genuinely go out of your way to defend them?

Submissions have been edited for clarity, context, and profanity.

No one wants a wrongful conviction.

My criminal law professor said that he preferred guilty clients because he could do his best to ensure a fair procedure but if he lost he didn't sweat it. He took it a lot harder when he would lose a trial for a client that he thought was innocent.


100% agree with your professor. The emotional impact of losing a trial where you don't think your guy did it is pretty horrific.


Prosecutor here. You can try to get some sleep after such a loss by remembering that any one of:

  • The arresting officer
  • The prosecutor
  • The judge
  • Any single juror

Could have stopped that conviction. Even if you thought your guy was innocent, enough people involved in the case thought otherwise that you should be able to rest at ease. You did your work.


Attorney-client privilege cannot be breached.

The real question is, if your client confesses and then another innocent person gets convicted of that crime, what do you do?


You should read this article:

The client who was already in prison confessed to his attorneys that he killed the security guard. Prosecution tries and convicts someone who is totally innocent. The attorneys meanwhile cannot come forward with their knowledge because 1. the confession would be deemed improper evidence and not be allowed, and 2. they would lose their licenses. They recorded the confession and locked it away until the client died at which point they were able to bring it forward and exonerate the innocent man who had been convicted.

The attorneys talk about how terrible it was but they had no choice due to attorney-client privilege. They said if they thought they could get the evidence in, they would have given up their law licenses to do so.


All criminal defendents have the right to a fair trial.

Everyone deserves a defense. It's less about the defendant and more about making sure the state proves its case and can't railroad any defendants.


I feel like if more people understood this there would be less hatred toward lawyers. I certainly did not think of it in this way.


I interned as a defense attorney working for [state redacted] legal aid society. I was 24 at the time and still in law school. I specialized in getting expungements. Basically if someone was charged with a crime and had met certain requirements, I'd get that conviction wiped from their record. These people deserved it. They worked hard to better themselves and the criteria they had to meet wasn't a cakewalk.

I still had people call me names. In a relatively liberal town at that. If I was at a local bar having a conversation and the topic of my work came up I could almost expect some kind of derogatory comment. Most people don't understand that the principle purpose of a defense attorney is to make sure the defendant gets their due process. Not all defendants are guilty. And, if a defendant is guilty, they don't deserve to rot in jail forever. These basic concepts of innocent until proven guilty and right to due process are things people easily forget.

I have no desire to be a defense attorney and part of it is because I don't want to constantly deal with ignorant people assuming I want to help defendants avoid justice.


Reasonable doubt.

I used to give some judicial advice (not in the US) and I think you have the wrong idea about lawyers. It's not their job to prove someone is innocent, it is to defend the rights of the defendant. That means for instance that the procedures must be correct, and that the state does its job of building up a reasonable case. And if the person is guilty, he or she still needs a fair trial and a fair sentence.


This. The burden of proof in most western systems is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense only needs to introduce reasonable doubt.


And, that is reasonable doubt.

Not can I imagine a scenario where the defendant is not guilty, but can I reason out a scenario where a defendant is not guilty.

My mom sat on a jury that found someone "Not Guilty" of a DUI because the evidence was somewhat erratic driving and dash cam video of a cop emptying out a vodka container. No further observations or tests.

She reasoned that people do fill and drink water out of anything that's on hand, or urinate into same.


Defense lawyers keep the state honest.

It's about holding the state accountable. I don't care if my guy did it. If we let the state lock him up without doing its job properly, that means next week it could be you, or me, or your mom that gets sent up for something we didn't do.


Protecting your rights as a defendent is a multi-job affair.

Public defender here. I describe my job as part doctor, part tour guide. Like a doctor, sometime I can cure you but sometimes I can just try to make it hurt less. Sometimes I can't do either. Then I'm a tour guide who makes sure that you understand what is happening, why it is happening, and try to give you as much choice in the matter as possible. At the very least, I sit next to you in court so you don't have to face the judge by yourself.


Guilt or innocence are not the main issues.

I'm a defense lawyer.

95% of clients are factually guilty.

No it makes absolutely zero difference to our motivation.

It's a huge misunderstanding that the justice system determines guilt and innocence. It doesn't.

It determines whether the state has enough evidence to lock a human in a cage against their will.

So a client actually being guilty has nothing to do with that question.

Moreover, the vast majority (90+% even if you're a very aggressive attorney) end in a plea. The issue is usually that your client is guilty of something for which they have sufficient evidence, but the state has over charged. You find a reasonable balance based on the strength of the states evidence.

A trial is a broken negotiation and typically only happens if one side is being completely unreasonable, is dumb, or has nothing to lose.


hi all, I dont have time to reply to everyone individually, but let me address the biggest topic of conversation: overcharging.

Couple points - yes it happens all the time. all the time. Especially in lower income communities. Police and prosecutors start from the very highest thing they could possibly charge.

Heres what doesn't happen, which has been brought up a lot in the comments. Guy steals a pack of gum, state charges him with murder, we plea to robbery.

Bargaining in a legal case isnt like haggling for a car. Theres not a high ball and low ball and we land in the middle.

That's because the defense is (supposed) to see the evidence so we know what the reasonable charge would be.

It's more like this: guy steals a pack of gum. Stage charges robbery, battery, assault, and resisting arrest because they allege a scuffle happened during the theft.

I look at it and say, ok the states got great evidence of the theft and really weak evidence of the scuffle and medium evidence for resisting arrest.

So we'll plea to the theft, f*ck off with the robbery battery and assault, and we haggle over the resisting.

If I think maybe maybe they get the robbery than I advice my client to eat the resisting because it really doesnt add to much and the penalty for robbery is 10 years. If I feel confident that they're f*cked on robbery we hold strong and only plea to theft.

So basically, if you have a good attorney we just bash through the overcharging.

Does it move the needle? Yes. Do people cop to charges a bit higher than they should because of the threat of the the overcharged crime? Yes. But are people pleading out to absurd things they didnt do because the state is waving bogus murder charges over their heads? No. Good attorneys dont let that happen.


A lawyer's duty doesn't depend on guilt or innocence.

An attorney has an ethical duty to represent their client zealously. That is true whether we know a client is guilty or not. Whether in court or during pre-trial proceedings we will challenge and evaluate the state's evidence. True whether trying to get a client off all charges, looking to plea, or just figure out a defense strategy. Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is a heavy burden. It is a higher standard than guilty by clear and convincing evidence and by the preponderance of the evidence. The reason is simple. If the government is going to take a person's liberty or even their life they had better not be overreaching. The burden is therefore on the prosecution. A defense attorney holds the prosecutor to that.


Lawyers cannot knowingly have their clients lie in court.

I'm late to the party but one thing I've noticed is missing from many top comments is discussion of a lawyers ethical obligations to the bar and to the court. If your client confesses his guilt to you, you cannot elicit false testimony from your client on the stand. You cannot knowingly present false information to the court and if you become aware of that falsity after the fact, you have an obligation to correct the record.

It can get comicated with things like your client testifying. You can choose not to call your client's friend to the stand if you know he will lie, but your client has an absolute right to testify. When you know that your client is guilty but he insists on testifying that he is not, you can have him give narrative testimony in which you, as his lawyer, do not participate.

The standard is typically whether or not you know that something is untrue, not whether you strongly suspect it is.


Lawyers are a check on an aggressive system.

I am a defense lawyer as well.

TLDR; the criminal justice system is so oppressive I don't care so if a guilty client or two gets off scot free. On the whole it benefits society.

There are two kinds of defense lawyers; the ones that live for getting an innocent client off, and those that live for getting a guilty client off. I am probably the latter kind.

At the end of the day most defense attorneys-especially those in more rural areas believe the sentencing and fines for most offenses are outrageous, especially for indigent clients, and perpetuate a system of oppression of the disenfranchised.

Marijuana possession? ~$600 2 days jail and substance abuse classes

Operating while intoxicated? Whether sitting in a car with the engine running because it's cold, or legit drunk driving, easily ~$2000 a long with license suspension, increased insurance costs and 2 days jail. Often sentences come with 1-2 years of probation which drags on with 90-180 days in jail if they don't do well enough.

EDIT: didn't expect this kind of response. Thanks for the lovely discussion.


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