I couldn’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked how I can possibly practice criminal law—how I can defend “criminals.” Why not prosecute instead? Depending on the audience, my answer varies. In Montana, where we place such a premium on individual rights and privacy, my answer usually is some form of explaining how defending against criminal charges really protects the constitutional rights of all citizens—not just those charged with a crime.
The real answer, though, is much more personal for me. When I was sixteen years old, I had the amazing opportunity to meet and be mentored by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former professional boxer who had been wrongfully charged and convicted of a triple homicide in the 1960’s. The subject of a Bob Dylan song, he was incarcerated for nearly twenty years before finally being exonerated in 1985. His trials were full of faulty police investigations, witness lies and recantations, and discovery violations by the prosecution who was simply eager for a conviction.
As a teenager, when I saw that our justice system could take the freedom of innocent people, I knew that I had to get involved. I attended a fundraising event for Toronto, Canada’s Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), an organization for which Rubin Carter served as the executive director. I met a handful of people who AIDWYC had worked tirelessly to exonerate—by digging up evidence and arguing for new trials for reasons similar to Rubin Carter’s.
I decided then that I was going to law school to become a criminal defense attorney. Initially, I wanted to be a part of an innocence project like AIDWYC and work to overturn wrongful convictions. However, I decided that I would be most helpful defending people at the trial court level and doing my best to prevent wrongful convictions before they happened.
While I’m aware that not all criminal charges are misplaced, I personally believe it is far scarier to imagine innocent people serving prison sentences than it is to imagine guilty people not getting convicted. As a defense attorney I believe that it is as much my job to ensure that prosecutors and law enforcement are held to their burdens of proof and the rules of evidence in obtaining convictions, as it is to do my best to prevent innocent people from being convicted.
Rubin Carter once told me that the world needed more lawyers like me—who believed the system could work if everyone played by the rules. I only hope that I can live up to his expectations.