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What Scares Criminal Defense Attorneys

The title of this post is perhaps a bit inaccurate. After all, I’m just onecriminal defense attorney. So what I’m writing about today is about something that actually I can only know for certain scares me — and perhaps a few other attorneys with whom I’ve discussed things like this in the past.

But, who knows? Maybe it will inspire other criminal defense attorneys to chime in on the comments.

Or, maybe it will just inspire idiots to chime in and tell me how I’m wrong, because — after all — I just “defend criminals.”

For my part, I guess I can plead “guilty as charged” to that comment, sometimes. The problem is, though, I can’t really do that until after my clients are convicted. Because prior to that time, they’re just “accused people,” or “people who have been accused of crimes.” If you want to be more hardcore, you could call them “suspects.” Police and judgmental law-and-order types prefer “perps” — because that’s the really cool way to say “perpetrators.” It makes you sound–well, actually, it makes you sound stupid.

Of course, the problem — part of the reason it makes you sound stupid — is that “perpetrators” are people who did something. So we’re right back to not knowing if I defend “perps” until they’re convicted.

After a conviction, we can look back and see if I defended perpetrators. You’ll still look stupid for saying “perps.”

What scares me, though, is the willingness of many Americans to deem others “criminals,” or “perpetrators,” or “guilty” — in other words to assume the conviction — before the conviction.

But it’s not just this willingness to assume conviction before the conviction. It’s the abject ignorance of such individuals, which almost always makes reasoning with them pretty much impossible.

I don’t think I’d really mind, so much, an ignoramus asserting the guilt of another individual prior to hearing all the evidence, if they were nevertheless willing to hear and see the evidence and be open to the possibility of having their minds changed before pronouncing the sentence.

And I’m sorry if my use of the word “ignoramus” here bothers anyone. I just can’t think of any nicer label for someone who decides the guilt of another individual based upon their feelings, without hearing all the evidence, and then makes up reasons why they are right to decide the guilt without hearing or seeing the evidence.

This is something that, frankly, boggles my mind.

Perhaps I should tell you what provoked this little tirade today….

Sometimes, despite the fact that I keep trying to get myself to stop, I get sucked into debates discussions responding to ignoramuses on Facebook. It starts off seeming almost like a debate or a discussion, but I quickly learn that it’s just someone ejaculating idiotic statements about their unchangeable feelings onto a web page.

And that’s exactly what happened today in a discussion of the George Zimmerman–Trayvon Martin Internet mindfuckfest.

Let me interrupt this post to state that I have not been reading every article I can get my hands on about the George Zimmerman–Trayvon Martin case. In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve read probably less than three or four articles regarding the case, and all but one was from when it first happened. As Scott Greenfield pointed out in a post this morning,

Many criminal defense lawyers studiously ignore cases that catch the public’s attention. They just aren’t that legally interesting, even if the facts or issues give rise to popular passion. And so it’s been for the trial of George Zimmerman for murder 2º in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I therefore have not formed an opinion regarding the potential guilt, lack of guilt, or innocence, of George Zimmerman.

What I do know is that a whole lot of other people have, and are willing to express their opinion, which opinion is almost always based upon some of the most ignorant statements I’ve ever seen regarding the potential guilt or innocence of an accused person.

I may lose some friends over this, but I’ve actually already tried being nice in responding to comments, and now I’m going to blog about the abject stupidity that seems to have permanently embedded itself into the American psyche. I mean, really, was the mass of humanity always this stupid? Or is this — as I hope — something new, and potentially fixable?

At any rate, if it costs me friends, then so be it. As the saying goes, with friends like that, who in the world would ever need enemies? I mean, seriously, if your reasoning processes are that scrambled, it’s going to be hard to enjoy talking to you about anything more than your feelings at any given moment, anyway. And even then, all I’ll be able to do is smile and nod, because your feelings are based on—shit, I don’t know what they’re based on any better than you do.

Which is to say I don’t know if they’re based on anything. They just are. And they’re hideous. You and people like you scare the living crap out of me, because you make me realize just how unsafe the world really is. You’re the kind of people who would get upset and beat the crap out of a ham sandwich for having too much mayonnaise on it, screaming obscenities, as if the ham sandwich were to blame. (And you’ll do this even if you’re the one who made the sandwich!)

One person I was talking to kept saying that George Zimmerman is guilty of murder because he followed Trayvon Martin.


George Zimmerman may well be found guilty of murder. For all I know — because I don’t know — he may have actually wanted to murder Martin. He may have planned to kill Martin. He might have — as another brain-dead Facebooker thought — followed Martin “because he wanted to kill somebody.” I have no idea.

But I do know that George Zimmerman is not — not in any rational universe — going to be found guilty of murdering Martin just because he followed him.

And that doesn’t change, even if the 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow Martin.

Because following people, by itself, is not illegal. It might be a lot of things — maybe creepy, maybe based on prejudice, maybe coincidence — but it’s not, by itself, illegal.

So someone — I’m trying not to say mean things about him, even though I can’t believe what I heard — responded to me by saying,

I get drunk. I drive my car. I kill someone. I didn’t intend to kill someone but that’s what happened. I’m guilty of causing that person’s death because of my reckless and irresponsible behavior. Zimmerman is guilty of causing Martin’s death by his own reckless and irresponsible behavior….

I’m pretty sure I remember the comment being worded differently — more along the lines of this:

I get drunk. I drive my car. I kill someone. I didn’t intend to kill someone but that’s what happened. Zimmerman followed Martin. He killed him. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t intend to kill him.

That wording is not exactly correct. But the original comment has been edited to read what I posted first above, and my memory is that the connection was being drawn between the drunk driver getting into the car, and Zimmerman following Martin. Which was why I responded with this:

The analogy doesn’t fit, for numerous reasons. For starters, it’s illegal to drive a car while drunk, even if you don’t kill someone. It’s not illegal to follow someone, even if you intend to kill him. (Yep, that’s right. It’s not the following that’s illegal; it’s the killing. At least, that’s the law in California and [appears to possibly be the same in] Florida. I didn’t check every state[, but you can look here for more information if you want].) But, hey, I agree with you — only the laws you want to believe in, or create, count — you’re the final arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong.

The final sentence of my response was directed at what appeared to me to be a general attitude that it doesn’t matter whether under the law Zimmerman should not be found guilty. He’s guilty. Period. End of story.

But the kicker, for me, was the next comment:

That may be true but it doesn’t change my opinion. Not even a little bit.

Earlier in the “discussion” — god, what’s the right word for something as bizarre as this futile exercise in education? — that same person had stated:

I don’t give a rat’s ass what Zimmerman’s motivation was. He was told to back off. He didn’t. He killed the kid. The whole thing comes down to Zimmerman continuing to pursue someone after being told not to do so. Guilty.

That’s right. My friend — who now has royally scared the shit out of me — and several of his cronies, or supporters, or whatever we should call them, firmly believes that whether or not a man is guilty of murder “comes down to” his “continuing to pursue someone after being told not to do so.” That alone makes him guilty.

Let me reiterate because I know a lot of people who are challenged when it comes to reading anything longer than a tweet are going to be reading this post today: I do not know if Zimmerman is guilty of murder. I do not have an opinion on that issue. The reason I don’t is that I have not been reading all the rumors, sensationalized stories — which I call that because of headlines I’ve seen; and near as I can tell, the sensationalism is coming from both the pro-Zimmerman and pro-Martin sides of this yellfest — and I have not been watching or listening to the trial.

So maybe Zimmerman will justly be found to be guilty of murder. I’m not expressing an opinion on that.

My concern is the attitude that fosters a willingness for us to grab our pitchforks, and make judgments — judgments that we will later refuse to change regardless of what is said, regardless of what we may see, regardless of what any evidence may show, because they “may be true but [don’t] change [our] opinion.”

Let me finish off this rant by saying, again, that people who think like this scare the crap out of me.

They are at least a significant part of the reason why so many innocent people take plea bargains. They are the reason why so many innocent people are in prison. They are the reason why exonerations of innocent people are so very hard.

And they are the reason why so many more actually innocent people remain yet to be exonerated.