The Role and Responsibility of a Criminal Defense Lawyer

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Importance of A Defense Lawyer In The Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system is viewed as a three-part system consisting of the judge and jury, the prosecutor, and the defense lawyer. Each part of this system has a specific role. The role of the judge and jury is to render an impartial decision based solely on the facts presented and the laws applicable to the charged offense. In order to decide impartially, the judge and jury must be able to hear arguments from both sides. The prosecutor's role is to argue the side of the state that seeks to prove the defendant's guilt. The defense lawyer's role is to argue on behalf of the defendant. The defendant has no burden of proof. That is, the defendant need not prove his innocence. It is enough simply to point out ways in which the state has not established guilt (e.g., an eyewitness has poor eyesight or an accuser has a motive to lie).

The criminal justice system recognizes that in a criminal proceeding the state is asserting its ultimate authority over a single civilian; the defense carefully observes the use of this authority. Furthermore, different safeguards are in place to prevent abuse of the state's power.

  • The state bears the highest burden of proof, and must show that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes he is charged with.
  • No burden is placed on the defendant. That is, he need not present any evidence and he need not testify or give his own version of events. The state may not comment on the defendant's decision not to testify and the jury may not consider it in evaluating the case.
  • Many procedures are in place related to the investigation and the arrest of the defendant to ensure all evidence is accurate and that the correct person is charged with a crime.
  • Defendants possess civil rights to ensure they are treated fairly and given an opportunity to argue their case.

Safeguards, however, are useless without someone to guarantee or police them. This is the job of the defense lawyer.

  • The defense lawyer presents all evidence to rebut the prosecutor's arguments and challenges all questionable assertions of facts by the prosecutor to ensure that the high burden of proof is met.
  • The defense lawyer challenges procedural errors and may seek to have charges dismissed because of unreliable evidence or testimony.
  • The defense lawyer informs the defendant of his rights and defends those rights to ensure they have not been violated.

The Defense Lawyer as the First Line of Defense for Defendant When Facing the State

It is important for a defendant to obtain the help of a defense lawyer as early as possible. There are many actions a defense lawyer can take to protect and aid a defendant in the early stages that may not be possible as the case progresses.

  • The defense lawyer can inform the defendant of his rights at the outset (such as the right to remain silent) so that the defendant is aware of them and can benefit from them.
  • The defense lawyer can seek the temporary release of the defendant through bail, allowing the defendant to better assist in the preparation of a defense.
  • The defense lawyer can negotiate with the prosecutor to have charges reduced or even dropped.

In addition, the defense lawyer is able to counsel the defendant on different strategies and arguments that can be used in the case as well as the benefits and drawbacks for each one.

  • The defense lawyer works with the defendant and other witnesses to understand the defendant's version of events and to determine an appropriate defense (e.g., alibi, self-defense, misidentification).
  • The defense lawyer can provide advice on what plea to enter, whether to accept a plea agreement, whether to waive a jury trial, and whether the defendant should testify on his own behalf.
  • The defense lawyer can determine which witnesses to call and how they should be examined.
  • The defense lawyer can determine which potential jurors might be biased against the defendant and seek to remove them from the jury panel.

Other Resources

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