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Andrea Lyon Headshot

Yes, Virginia, It Can Happen to You, Too

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The chief prosecutor in Illinois' McHenry County, Louis Bianchi, was acquitted of corruption charges last week for conspiring to do political work on county time and computers. The overall experience, he said, has planted a seed of doubt into his belief in the system, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Perspective is everything. Much of the public and nearly all of law enforcement have trouble imagining that the innocent get charged, let alone convicted, but Mr. Bianchi sees things differently now: "I'll always recognize the possibility that someone who was charged may be innocent," he told the Tribune the day after his acquittal. Bianchi told a grand jury hearing unrelated cases, "I want you to know how easy it is to indict someone. ... I also remind the grand jury it can be a very manipulative, abusive process, as I have experienced ... that it's an important part of the process. It's not just a rubber stamp."

That feeling is something those of us who defend cases are all too familiar with. It is virtually impossible to do what the law tells us to do -- to presume innocence. Where there is smoke there's fire, right? The police wouldn't arrest an innocent person, would they? They must have done something wrong, right? Please don't misunderstand me -- I understand these sentiments. Indeed, I must admit I have often shared them -- having to work hard to afford my own clients that presumption, especially when I am representing someone who is a "bad guy" -- a gang member, for instance.

I remember when I had to face down my own prejudices in this regard. I was representing a young man who had confessed, before a court reporter, to a triple homicide. I forced myself to investigate the facts, in part because the police officers who extracted the confession had a brutal reputation. And I found to my dismay that I was representing an innocent, terrified man -- someone with no previous arrests and no experience with the police. He knew at least one of the people who had committed this awful crime -- he had been in the apartment when it started and had run for his life. After many hours of interrogation, he told the police that person's name, then the police brought the other suspect into the police station. The other suspect saw my client, so my client backed off the statement. He was terrified for his life. Caught between a rock and hard place, he decided confessing was safer for him and his family, so that is what he did. The jury acquitted him after less than an hour.

I had not believed him when he told me he was innocent, I just felt professionally obligated to do my job and find out what really happened. After that experience, I have learned to fight those natural presumptions, and I hope that maybe, just maybe, other prosecutors will read what Mr. Bianchi has had to say and realize that anyone can be charged. It is very easy to do, and very difficult to overcome that presumption of guilt.

We all have to keep that in mind. Sometimes when it gets hard to speak up for my clients, when I feel the overwhelming opprobrium of the public, or when I get a bit tired, I think of Pastor Martin Miemöller's famous quotation: " First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

So when you next read about an arrest or a trial, take a breath and think to yourself: Maybe this person is innocent. Think of the people who have spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn't commit. And when you next speak about a criminal defense lawyer, perhaps you might want to be a bit more kind -- after all you might need one of our voices one day.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Bianchi isn't through. He faces a second trial in June on additional charges of official misconduct.