Not everyone who is convicted of a crime is guilty, and not everyone who receives an acquittal or a dismissal of the charges is innocent. Sometimes a defendant who knows or suspects that they are guilty fears that their lawyer will stop representing them or will not defend them effectively if they believe that they are guilty. This may prevent them from being honest with their lawyer, which in turn hampers the lawyer’s efforts to provide a strategic defense. However, a lawyer has a duty to zealously represent any client, regardless of whether they believe that the client is guilty or innocent. This duty is found in the ABA rules of professional responsibility, which have been adopted or emulated by the bar associations of most states. By providing zealous representation, an attorney makes sure that the authority to decide a defendant’s guilt or innocence stays where it belongs: with the judge or jury.
The prosecution needs to meet the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes its case will fail if it cannot meet this burden, even if it seems more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime. Issues such as the admissibility of evidence or the credibility of witnesses may play a role in the prosecution’s ability to secure a conviction. This is known as the difference between factual guilt and legal guilt.
Understanding the Duties of the Lawyer
A lawyer is not a detective or investigator. Their job consists of crafting the strongest possible argument for the client under the circumstances, rather than determining how events actually unfolded. They cannot lie by claiming that the defendant is innocent if they believe that they are guilty or by saying that the defendant did something that they know that the defendant did not do. However, they can attack the prosecution’s proof and theory of the case, arguing that the prosecution has not presented enough evidence to prove every element of the crime.
Sometimes a criminal defense attorney will advise their client that they should admit their guilt as part of a strategy to receive more lenient penalties. If the client does not accept this suggestion, the lawyer is constitutionally forbidden from admitting the client’s guilt. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this decision is such a fundamental part of a criminal defendant’s case that the lawyer cannot make the decision for them.
Even if a defendant believes that they committed a crime, they may not understand the law well enough to make this judgment. In other cases, a defendant may “admit” that they committed a crime in an effort to protect someone else, when they did not actually commit it. There also may be a defense that would excuse or justify conduct that would normally be criminal, and the defendant may not be aware of this defense. Thus, most criminal defense lawyers will not place much weight on a client’s claim that they committed a crime. They also generally will not ask a client directly whether they committed the crime, preferring to focus on the legal aspects of the case instead.