I'm one of those lucky lawyers who found her calling at the age of 7. L.A. Law hooked me. Today I focus on family/matrimonial law, but it wasn't Arnie Becker, the charming and unctuous matrimonial lawyer at McKenzie Brackman, who reeled me in. Rather, it was Michael Kuzak, the defense lawyer and the show's star. In particular, the Earl Williams trial will always be with me.
Michael represented Earl, who was falsely accused of murdering his wife. Earl was an honorable man and Michael believed in his innocence. In a twist that would only occur on television because it likely pushed the boundaries of California legal ethics rules, even in the 1980s, the prosecutor was Grace van Owen, Michael's on-again/off-again girlfriend. Earl was found guilty and Michael appealed. Earl was ultimately and justly exonerated.
And I decided to become a criminal defense lawyer.
During a college internship in a New York criminal court, I toyed with the idea of a career as an assistant district attorney. More than "putting the bad guys away," ADA's stand up for victims who can't stand up for themselves. And a career in which your reputation and good word matter appeals to me. As a New York County ADA, if you don't fight fair, you're in for a rude awakening.
So throughout college I told friends that I hoped to be an ADA. But when I heard about criminal cases in which defendants had probably done terrible things, my gut instinct was always to wonder "Under what circumstances might that person actually not be guilty, or at least not be guilty of what he is being accused? If I were his lawyer, what argument might I make?" I didn't have the stomach of an ADA.
But I did have the mind of a lawyer. I attended UCLA Law and loved my classes. Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure fascinated me. So after my second year of law school, I applied for an internship at the Law Office of the Public Defenders. My application read:
I recently had a chance to observe a case at the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles. After the judge impaneled prospective jurors, he asked Juror #1 how he would vote, given that the juror knew nothing about the case. Juror #1 said he would need to hear evidence before he decided. The judge posed the same question to Juror #2, and received the same answer. Juror #3, however, gave a different answer: "I would acquit the defendant." The judge explained that Juror #3 had given the correct answer. In the United States, the presumption in criminal trials is that the defendant is innocent. The burden is on the prosecutor to provide evidence to rebut that presumption. Thus, without any evidence indicating that the defendant is guilty, the jury must acquit.
Observing this exchange reminded me of the important protections that our judicial system extends to criminal defendants. Further, it reminded me of the crucial role of the public defender: regardless of whether the defendant he represents is entirely innocent, guilty of some crime, or guilty of the precise crime of which he is accused, the public defender must ensure that a procedure is followed. The public defender faces an uphill battle with jurors, who often assume that defendants are guilty. The job of the public defender, however, is not only to disabuse jurors of this assumption, nor is it only to ensure that the defendant was not "over-charged." The public defender's chief function is to ensure that police officers, prosecutors, and courts follow certain rules in their dealings with the defendant. If the public defender can show that any of those rules were not followed, he or she has fulfilled a fundamental part of his job duties.
Instead of that working at that internship, that summer I had the pleasure of interning at a criminal defense firm in Los Angeles. I joined the lawyers at frequent meetings to discuss the cases. Before that summer, when I read newspaper articles about the accused, it was easier to be an "armchair defense lawyer"; faced with much more information about a particular case and a justified belief that a defense client was probably guilty of important crimes, I had to dig in my heels and remember that every client, no matter what he is accused of -- and no matter whether he did it -- deserves the protection of a lawyer who ensures that legal procedures are followed.
The more I saw that summer, the more I realized I didn't have the stomach for criminal defense either. But I will always be grateful to criminal defense lawyers -- both public defenders and private lawyers -- for doing a difficult and essential job.
I ultimately followed in the footsteps of my mother, also a lawyer, and focused on family and matrimonial law, an ideal fit for me. To be sure, I work every day with clients who fight with the people they once loved most about topics they never wanted to fight about, including their children. Custody trials in particular can be grueling for divorcing parties and their children. They may cause damage but ultimately they end and more often than not parties (and their children) move on and are able to find happiness in the future.
Criminal defendants who spend years, decades, and sometimes their entire lives in jail are not able to do this.
Murder victims are not able to do this.
I tip my hat to criminal lawyers -- both ADAs and defense lawyers -- who do the hardest work of all.
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