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Maximilian Schell and How Art Imitates Life

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The news that Austrian-born actor Maximilian Schell died yesterday got me thinking. Schell made his mark in Hollywood -- and won an Oscar -- for his role as a criminal defense attorney in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. In the movie, Schell played the role of Hans Rolfe, who was given the job of defending four Nazi Judges on trial for sentencing innocent victims to death. Now, it may be hard to find a more despised individual than a Nazi, but those that saw the film were mesmerized by Schell's character, understood what motivated him and at some moments, just about rooted for him to win.

Well that is Hollywood for you, right? But it got me thinking -- how unrealistic was Schell's portrayal of a criminal defense attorney? In the film, Schell gives passionate arguments about his client's lack of intention to commit these acts. He cross examines extremely sympathetic victims who lost loved ones. He strenuously objects to the prosecutor's attempts to bring out certain facts that Schell's character finds inadmissible or unduly prejudicial.

So, as someone who has dedicated my law practice to representing individuals who are charged with very serious New York State and Federal crimes and hated by a good portion of the public, Schell's character did not seem unrealistic to me at all. Instead, it made clear that critical notion that: no matter what the crime or who the individual, they are entitled to a defense, to put the government to the test, and most of all be presumed innocent unless and until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And if they are to be convicted and sentenced, the process should be fair and dignified.

You often hear people speak very easily and eloquently of their belief in the Constitution and the rights for which it stands -- such as the right to counsel, right to remain silent, and the right to be free from unwarranted searches and seizures. But, try telling that same person that a guilty person may go free because of a violation of one of these rights and watch how quickly the tune changes from embracing the Constitution to how criminal defense attorneys are manipulating the legal system to get people off on technicalities.

But that is what makes criminal defense attorneys so important to the legal system. It may sound dramatic, but they are the last line of defense to protecting accused individuals from the government and its awesome power. To put it another way, let's say in Maximilian Schell terms: In order for these constitutional rights to apply to any of us, they must apply to all of us -- including Nazis.

And that concept is what makes Schell's role so realistic. Although I have never represented any Nazis, it sometimes seems that the reaction by the public towards my clients conjure up similar emotions. Just check any comment board or hard-line pundit, any you can see for yourself the level of disdain for what I do and level of hatred for the people I represent. But, by the same token, these reactions are exactly what make my job so critical. Without the criminal defense attorney, the accused remains unprotected and at great risk of being unjustly convicted.

I am unable to count the times someone has asked me how I am able to represent my clients -- especially when I "know" they are guilty?". These days, I give a perfunctory response that sounds something like, "I believe in the system that requires the government to prove their accusations against us;" or "to make sure my client is sentenced fairly." But in thinking about Maximilian Schell from now on, I may say nothing but direct them to watch Judgment at Nuremberg so that they can answer the question for themselves.