THE BLOG
01/22/2013 02:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2013

Killers, Hidden Bodies and Lawyers' Ethics

A recent case in Portland has once again put the spotlight on the professional and ethical obligations of criminal defense lawyers. 17-year-old Parrish Bennette Jr. pleaded guilty on Thursday (Jan. 17, 2013) to killing his then-girlfriend, Yashanee Vaughn, in 2011. After shooting her to death, he moved her body and buried it somewhere secret. He was arrested a couple of weeks after Vaughn went missing, but four more months passed before he finally led the police to her body.

At Bennette's plea hearing, the defense lawyers surprised many with a controversial admission:

Bennette's lawyer, Thomas MacNair, said it was the decision of Bennette's two defense attorneys -- not their teenage client -- to delay divulging where Bennette had dumped Vaughn's body after his arrest.

"A decision was made to delay that -- that was made by his lawyers, not by him, in accordance with our sworn duty to zealously defend Mr. Bennette," MacNair said.

It's impossible not to sympathize with Vaughn's family members, who are reported -- understandably -- to have been outraged about having had to endure an extra four months of uncertainty and delayed closure. At the same time, the lawyers were doing what they felt they were required to do, as a matter of professional obligations. During those four months, their duty was to get the best possible result for their client, Bennette. Letting him take the police to the body would, of course, effectively cement him into place as the killer, and thereby drastically reduce the possibilities for a favorable result from Bennette's perspective.

To non-lawyers or those not acquainted with the criminal justice system, this probably sounds horribly callous. Indeed, when I said something along those lines in the Oregonian story, I received the following email this morning:

WHEN I KILL AND BURY SOMEONE I WANT YOU TO HIDE WHAT I DID AS LONG AS POSSIBLE TO GET THE LEAST SENTENCE POSSIBLE--- YOUR IDEA OF JUSTICE IS PURE SHIT AND WHY I HATE OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM. I HOPE HIS LAWYERS DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH FOR WHAT THEY DID TO THE FAMILY -- THEY ARE PURE SHIT -- I HATE ALL LAWYERS-- THEY MAKE MONEY OFF CARNAGE.

Sheesh!!

Here's what it comes down to: our criminal justice system, in which the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, works best when defense attorneys zealously represent their clients using all legal means. When would they cross the line? Well, had the lawyers assisted Bennette in moving or disposing the body, that would be unlawful, because they (the lawyers) would be hindering the government above and beyond what the defendant himself did. (Similarly, if the client turned over the weapon used in the killing, the lawyers would most likely not be able to hold on to it, for that would also hinder the police from finding the weapon in a search of the defendant's home.)

It's important that criminal defense lawyers provide zealous advocacy, because we punish those convicted of serious felonies quite harshly. To be sure, I don't mean to suggest that the harsh sentences are never justified. I do mean to say that, given how harsh prison can be, we as a society should be as reasonably sure as we can that we are punishing the right people. Mistakes may be inevitable, but if, at the end of the day, a convicted defendant was ably represented by lawyers whose only focus was defending their client, we can feel better that we minimized the chances of wrongly convicting someone.

It surely can't be easy on the lawyers to keep secret something like the location of the victim's body for four months. But by showing that they can keep secrets, such as the location of the body, the lawyers can maintain the trust of their client. Were lawyers to give away such secrets out of the understandable desire to help the victim's family, then in the future, criminal defendants would be less candid with their attorneys out of fear that what they admitted in private conversations with their lawyers would nevertheless be disclosed to the public.

(This isn't even the most difficult client secret that lawyers have had to keep. Check out this story from 2009, in which two lawyers kept secret that their client was the actual murdered of a security guard, and not the person who was convicted of the crime... and who served 26 years in prison before the lawyers were finally allowed to reveal their now-deceased client's secret. Despite their best efforts to persuade him otherwise, the client wouldn't allow them to disclose his culpability until after he had died.)