Morality and Corruption of Lawyers: Criminal Defense Lawyers in America: Ethical, Moral, or Neither?

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English teacher Jennifer Kim asked us to publish the standout research papers written by her students in Senior English. The following is a paper written by Eva Long.

On February 7th, 2018, Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Rafael Barba said farewell on hit crime show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU)’s “The Undiscovered Country.” Claiming he “had to do it,” Barba pulled the plug on a client’s comatose baby—without the parents’ explicit consent—after his brain death (00:22:08 – 00:27:50). Consequently, the episode led to a new spark of questioning if criminal defense lawyers follow the rules of the Constitution and government (ethics) or their own personal principles (morals) and if corruption ties into any part. Although it seems that a majority of lawyers tend to suspend morals in favor of ethics, corruption can overlap with either motivator and depends on an individual’s personal views.

In this day and age, people tend to view all types of lawyers in a negative way. The general population turns lawyers into jokes, disseminating the stereotype that they are corrupt, heartless liars. Law students also know of these views, but why are they willing to become lawyers regardless? The answer is, of course, that most of them believe that they will be different and better. An anonymous student at Santa Clara University is convinced that he or she “will never put any role as a lawyer ahead of [his or her] role as a human being,” which is why he or she is “therefore sticking to corporate law [rather than criminal defense], where situations [do not] usually involve someone’s life or health” (qtd. in Heafey). Fortunately, there are plenty of potential attorneys who admirably enter a certain field that would allow them to maintain their humanity and morality in a career that is shrouded in gray areas. Such people are able to do ethical work while not compromising their personal views. However, they remain a minority.

In reality, the vast majority of criminal defense lawyers cannot afford to pick and choose who they represent. According to Richard J. Heafey—former law professor at Santa Clara University and current attorney with Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May—there is no room for “the luxury of choosing their clients based on the righteousness of their causes.” The point of being a lawyer is to represent someone and to follow the law. Sometimes attorneys have their reputations on the line or are working to make a living, so they cannot risk turning down clients because of apprehension, which arguably would be unprofessional in any job to refuse service because of emotional influence. Despite not being able to turn down suspicious or questionable clients, lawyers still abide by some form of ethics when they represent them. For starters, lawyers are meant to argue if a client is guilty, not if the client committed the crime. Attorneys evaluate the presence of enough evidence to show that someone was responsible for an offense, so the truth of if the client “did it” is not important. This allows them to focus on their ethics to protect their client based on evidence rather than on their own morals. Additionally, lawyers tend to allow clients to testify only if they believe they are telling the truth, but when a client outright admits to committing the crime or of telling a lie, the lawyer refuses to let the person testify (Pokin). If an attorney knows that a client specifically committed the crime, it would be unethical to testify because lying under oath opens the client up to being charged with perjury. Therefore, most times, lawyers object to even knowing if their client did the crime because it would jeopardize the procedures of the cases, such as taking the stand. This means the lawyer would not be able to adequately represent the client. So, in some cases, morals fall in line with ethics, but the ultimate reason a lawyer makes a choice is based on if it is right or wrong in the eyes of the law.

Be that as it may, why do some attorneys continue to represent clients in difficult and taxing cases if their morals do not align with their ethics? According to Johnnie Cochran, who defended O.J. Simpson after the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, the answer was simple. He defended Simpson because it was a matter of following the Constitution, which allows everyone—even people that the general public deems as guilty—to a fair trial, which Simpson still deserved regardless of if he committed the murders (42-43). Even so, Cochran was under fire for defending Simpson and ultimately winning the trial of the century even though Simpson “obviously did it,” Cochran was quoted saying off-camera a month before he was put on the case (qtd. in Holt). Personal opinions aside, Cochran felt that he had a duty to give Simpson a legitimate and unprejudiced chance to stay a free man, which other lawyers may not have been able to do. Therefore, he chose his ethics over his own morals.

In addition to him, other famous lawyers shared the same thoughts. John Henry Browne had no sympathy for Ted Bundy, a serial killer and rapist who murdered over thirty women and wrought the nation with fear in the late twentieth century. However, Browne “did want to save him from the death penalty,” a punishment long-debated as unethical (qtd. in Carroll). So, he continued to represent him anyway. Not only Bundy, but Browne represented Robert Bales, a former sergeant who killed sixteen Afghan citizens. Because the government and army refused to help Bales obtain a fair trial, Browne saw it as his duty to take control of the job that others denied (qtd. in Carroll). In spite of the negative and public disgust toward Browne’s clients, he chose to represent them anyway. He felt that Bundy still deserved to live and that Bales made despicable and heinous choices but was not ultimately a monstrous person and therefore deserved as little punishment as he could receive. Moreover, Irving Kanarek was the lawyer of Charles Manson, a cult leader whose members murdered several people in 1969. He claimed that it was not “a difficult decision to take the Manson case” because his “purpose [as a lawyer] was to fight legally admissible evidence,” which he believed was little-to-nonexistent that Manson was at all involved in the murders (qtd. in Carroll). Since Manson may have been a huge influence for developing the mindsets of the murderers, the general public anticipated that he would go to jail for it, but there was little evidence to place Manson at the crime scenes. Thus, the extent of Manson’s involvement—specifically if he was solely an accomplice or to what degree of murder—deserved an ethical, full-fledged trial, so Kanarek continued to represent him. All in all, the law can be even more complicated than it seems.

Fig. 1. A judge offers a plea deal instead of accepting an attorney’s full plea (Teitelbaum).

Although it may seem that cases are black and white, that is hardly ever true. Sometimes there is no other choice for lawyers. As seen in fig. 1, in order to ensure that the client receives the smallest sentencing possible, lawyers may have to make a “corrupt” agreement to a compromise, which is more common than expected. Laurence Lee, lawyer of Jon Venables who killed a two-year-old when he was ten years old himself, argued with the prosecution team that the charge “should be manslaughter rather than murder,” but the prosecution did not accept this change, so they pleaded not guilty to murder (qtd. in Carroll). The choice to plead as such was intensely criticized and still continues to be to this day. Clearly, because Lee was willing to accept manslaughter and because Venables admitted to the crime, Lee knew that he was written off as “wrong” by a moral compass. However, often seen as corrupt because of the “not guilty” plea, Lee’s attempt at a plea bargain was in all honesty not a corrupt decision and was motivated by ethics because his main objective was to reduce his client’s sentence as much as possible. Even so, although lawyers tend to choose ethics rather than morals, there is still the question as to why they have a reputation of being callous and cold.

The most obvious explanation for this reputation is due to the lawyers who attempt to plead not guilty or attorneys who successfully defend clients who likely committed the crimes. To the general public, it seems like lawyers are siding with their clients or that they approve of alleged involvement with crimes, but attorneys such as Browne, Lee, and Kanarek prove otherwise. Not only do some lawyers not have to approve of clients to represent them, but lawyers are also not heartless. Laurence Lee lost sleep and had nightmares, intense flashbacks, and a period of time where he could not go back to work after and because of the Venables case (qtd. in Carroll). Lee did not approve of manslaughter, but he sympathized with the loss of childhood and anonymity. So, he continued the case because he felt that Venables deserved a fair trial in a world that wanted him dead for the killing of James Bulger. Likewise, William Kelley—attorney of serial killer, kidnapper, and rapist Charles Ng—let emotional involvement to the case consume him, finding refuge by getting away to Ireland, drinking Guinness, and playing golf (qtd. in Carroll). Kelley believed that Ng’s partner Leonard Lake was to blame for the crimes and thus fought vigorously to prove it (qtd. in Wallace). Therefore, it was no surprise that the loss of the case left him distraught for a fraction of his life. Even so, recognizing the intensity and dysfunctionality of the clients meant that it was clear that personal views toward the clients were not the lawyers’ motives for representing them. Instead, they felt that it was their duty to save them from the severity of the justice system.

Lastly, a major stereotype is that they are corrupt, but that depends on circumstance. Few legal conditions are ever clearly defined, and The People v. Rafael Barba case from SVU reflects that perfectly. Whether or not killing the baby was ethical or moral crosses a very thin line. Some may argue that Barba had a moral motive and a corrupt reaction because he felt guilty for not ending his father’s suffering on life support, so he turned off the baby’s (00:20:10 – 00:21:17). However, this is not necessarily true. Maybe Barba was motivated by a moral reason, but he ultimately made the choice because of an ethical reason, claiming it to be a “justifiable homicide,” which is not against the law. “In Roe v. Wade, the court implied that an unborn baby was alive when it could survive on its own” (Law 00:01:53 – 00:02:00). The baby would have needed life support for the rest of his days. Thus, the humane and lawful response was to kill the baby, but was it corrupt for Barba to kill the baby without the parents’ consent? Inarguably, he did take advantage of his position of power, but he was not corrupt in doing so. Killing the baby was the ethical response. Killing the baby, even without permission, gave him the ability to rest in peace, especially since the doctors claimed that he was already dead mentally. Conclusively, Barba was the epitome of a moral and ethical lawyer, proving that the two can overlap, but whether or not lawyers are corrupt depends on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to law, cases tend to be complex and even convoluted, and lawyers tend to receive the brunt of public criticism even when it might not be their faults. Attorneys are forced to fight negative stereotypes of corruption, heartlessness, and lies, but a lot of them do not fall under these stereotypes. As a whole, good lawyers are supposed to give clients fair trials, argue over whether or not there is enough evidence, and fight for a “guilty/not guilty” verdict rather than a “did it/did not do it” verdict. So, most attorneys act based on ethics rather than morals and may even make questionable decisions in that process, but whether or not they are considered corrupt depends on personal opinion and circumstance.


Works Cited:

Carroll, Rory and Simon Hattenstone. “Defending the Indefensible? Lawyers on Representing

Clients Accused of Nightmarish Crimes.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27

Jun. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2018.

Cochran Jr., Johnnie L. How Can You Defend Those People, 30 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 39 (1996).


Heafey, Richard J. “Moral Attorneys; Moral People.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Santa

Clara University, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2018.

Holt, Patricia. “`Of Course He Did It’ / O.J.’s Lawyers Told People He Was Guilty, New Book

Says.” SF Gate. San Francisco Chronicle, 8 Sept. 1996. Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. “Law & Order: SVU – Share the Moment: Barba Takes the

Stand (Episode Highlight).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 7 Feb. 2018. Web. 1

Apr. 2018.

Pokin, Steve. “Defense Lawyers Tread Lightly Around: Did Ya Do It?” Springfield

News-Leader. SNL, 7 Sept. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2018.

Teitelbaum, Eric and Bill Teitelbaum. Guilty, Not Guilty, Meet in the Middle. Digital image.

Pinterest. Pinterest, 13 May 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2018.

“The Undiscovered Country.” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, season 19, episode 13, NBC,

7 Feb. 2018. NBC. Television.

Wallace, Bill. “Ng Murder Trial Opens With Chilling Videos / Defense Says Partner Was the

Sole Killer.” SF Gate. San Francisco Chronicle. 27 Oct. 1998. Web. 4 Apr. 2018.

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