How can a lawyer represent a person accused of a terrible crime?

Standard 4- 1.2 The Function of Defense Counsel

(a) Counsel for the accused is an essential component of the administration of criminal justice. A court properly constituted to hear a criminal case must be viewed as a tripartite entity consisting of the judge (and jury, where appropriate), counsel for the prosecution, and counsel for the accused.

(b) The basic duty defense counsel owes to the administration of justice and as an officer of the court is to serve as the accused’s counselor and advocate with courage and devotion and to render effective, quality representation. 

                                        -American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Standards


I respect attorneys who take on impossible, ugly, no-win cases.  Most attorneys I know have had at least one of these cases; others have had too many to count.  Some cases involve bitter spouses who loved each other enough to get married, have children and build lives together, but can’t agree on who gets the toaster in a divorce.  Other cases involve defending someone who gets caught committing a crime on video tape with plenty of DNA left behind and a confession to everyone who will listen.

Attorneys will take on these unpopular cases for a variety of reasons.  Of course they get paid.  You would not expect to work at your job for free.  But most take these cases because they believe in the protections of constitutional law.

I have prosecuted some heinous crimes in Wayne County and around the state.  Typically crimes against children are the cases I distinctly remember – a toddler with his feet badly burned, a baby dying from being slammed into a table, a child who was molested.  Horrible, terrible cases.  It is these types of cases where constitutional protections are needed the most.

My colleagues in the Wayne County Public Defenders’ Office are some of the best criminal defense attorneys I know.   The last three attorneys I hired have been employed there or devoted substantial portions of their practice to indigent criminal defense.  Public defenders accept unpopular, difficult cases on a daily basis.  I see them each week in court.  If there is conflicting evidence, they will point it out. If there is evidence that was overlooked in the police investigation, they will tell me.  If there are reasons why a person should be shown leniency, they will produce it.  They make sure that I do my job properly and that the process is fair.

I find it troubling to hear or read a diatribe about an attorney or a case.  Typically it is from someone who knows little about the case and even less about the law.  But the Internet makes everyone an authority on many issues, regardless of training, knowledge or experience.

An attorney I know was appointed to represent a person on appeal who committed a heinous crime.  He was unfairly disparaged by people for representing her.  He chose to accept the appointment because he was asked to do so by a judge.  I am also betting that whatever he gets paid by the county will be less than what he would otherwise earn if retained privately.  His job is to use good legal judgment to evaluate the case for errors.  If errors were made, he should point them out.  It does not mean he believes that what the defendant did was morally right.  He is making sure that the trial and sentencing were done in a fair manner and according to the law.  He and other attorneys who perform this service should be commended, not disparaged.

My Prosecutor’s FaceBook page is intended to convey information about our cases to the community. The vast majority of people who visit it are civil, thoughtful people.  It is not a forum to rant about defendants, attorneys, law enforcement officers, judges or others in the criminal justice system.  You can create your own page to do so.  After all, your rants are protected by the same constitution that provides for a defense at public expense.


Mike Shipman

Prosecuting Attorney