It’s no secret the majority of people don’t like criminal defense attorneys. And, why would we? Our media outlets are packed with news stories about rapists getting off scot free, drunk drivers killing innocent victims only to do a few hours of community service and of course, the hundreds of infamous defendants charged with murder only to strut out of the courtroom after being found innocent. So, who does the public usually blame? The defense attorney.
Infamous criminal defense lawyers like Robert Kardashian and Jose Baez, the lead attorneys in the OJ Simpson and Casey Anthony trials, take the brunt of public scrutiny no matter what the verdict may be. So, why would any attorney, let alone some of the best attorneys, choose criminal defense? After looking at our country’s false imprisonment rate, you may have a different point of view.
Did you know the United States has the highest percentage of it’s citizens incarcerated in the entire world? Yep, that’s right. For many, “living the American dream” means sitting behind bars and of those, thousands may be innocent. According to U.C. Irvine professor C. Ronald Huff, author of Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy, nearly 10,000 U.S. citizens may be wrongfully convicted each year.
Take a minute to think about that. Approximately 10,000 Americans each year are stripped of their freedom and most basic rights, while the real criminals are out free. Every year fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and friends are sitting in a cell, living life in prison after being wrongfully accused.
According to The Innocence Project, since the first DNA Exoneration took place in 1989 there have already been 312 post-conviction exonerations in the U.S. and of those, the average length of time the exonerees spent in prison is 13.5 years. That’s longer than it takes to start kindergarten and graduate high school. For the wrongfully accused with children, that’s a lifetime. They go in with young children and come out as parents of full fledged adults. That’s missing an entire world of “firsts”. First day of school, first report card, first heartbreak, first best friend, first crush – All because of a system who put the wrong person away for a crime. All because those prison bars won’t let them share their childrens’ experiences and give them the love and support they deserve from inside a federally mandated cage.
If the defendant is supposed to be proven innocent beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be convicted, how do so many people end up being wrongfully incarcerated? The number one reason is eyewitness testimony. That’s not to say the witnesses purposefully accused the wrong person, but memory is often formatted to fit the mental schema of each individual witness. SimplyPsychology.org states, “Schemas are therefore capable of distorting unfamiliar or unconsciously ‘unacceptable’ information in order to ‘fit in’ with our existing knowledge or schemas. This can, therefore, result in unreliable eyewitness testimony.”
Another common and somewhat unbelievable cause of wrongful conviction is a false confession. The Innocence Project states ” Of the 104 post-conviction exonerations of homicide cases, false confessions and incriminating statements have made up for 62% of the wrongful convictions .” How can someone possibly confess to a violent crime, especially a murder, if they didn’t do it? It may be easier than you think when facing criminal charges. As the website of George Ramos, a prominent defense attorney in San Diego, CA, simply states when referring to the hundreds of clients his law firm has represented facing criminal charges, “Many of those people were confused and did not know their legal rights.” Confessing to a serious crime may seem impossible to an outsider, but amidst the chaos and confusion surrounding criminal charges and the lack of criminal knowledge of the accused, it happens more than you’d like to think.
After exoneration, the impact of time in prison goes far beyond the years spent behind bars. It can have a lasting effect on the quality of life moving forward. With a lack of real world experience, loss of personal relationships and defamation of character, the wrongfully convicted often go on to have difficulty long after they’ve been exonerated. From financial trouble to the emotional effects of prison life, the road to recovery after exoneration is not an easy one. A study by the Berkeley, California based Life After Exoneration Program found that 2 out of 3 exonerated persons are not financially stable and 1 out of 4 have lost custody of their children. The long term effects of time in prison for the wrongfully convicted can be life-altering.
So, while it’s easy to hate the defense attorneys who represent the OJ Simpsons and Casey Anthonys of the world, it’s important to remember the imperative job they do. After all, if you or someone you loved was facing criminal charges, wouldn’t you want a seasoned defense attorney fighting for your rights?