To Prosecute is Human, To Defend Divine

“How can you defend someone who is guilty?”

In law school, this was a question that I deeply pondered. Even though I was passionate about pursuing criminal law, I wondered if I could ever feel ethically confident defending a client who clearly had broken the law. As a young, naïve law student, I didn’t think I could ever be a defense attorney. I could not imagine defending those I knew were guilty. So, I became a Deputy District Attorney for Washoe County instead, and loved being on that side of justice for eight years.

In law school, we learned in our sterile classroom environments that “this noble profession is about finding justice through the adversarial process.” In practice, it is not always like that. The stereotypical reputation that lawyers have from television, movies, countless jokes, or even personal anecdotes is not favorable. Our profession is often seen as full of hucksters who look for loopholes, or worse yet corrupt to their core. As I worked as a prosecutor, I found this stereotype to be far from the truth. There will always be a few who are not honest with the facts or are looking to manipulate the system to avoid consequences, but I’ve found these to be the exceptions. Most attorneys I have worked with, in and out of court, simply seek the best deal for their clients while also trying to get them the assistance they need to overcome things like addiction or other struggles.

My time with the Washoe County District Attorney’s office helped me fully recognize the important need for each individual’s rights to be protected throughout the legal process, whether or not they were guilty. I watched as the members of the defense bar defended the rights of their clients without necessarily defending their actions. As I watched this from the eyes of a prosecutor, I gained a respect for the work that defense attorneys did and the methods most used.

A big turning point in solidifying my personal philosophy in defending guilty individuals, was an article entitled “Dialogue Between a Prosecutor and Defense Attorney” in the Clark Memorandum, a magazine put out by the J. Rueben Clark law school at Brigham Young University. This article highlighted a one-hour discussion between United States Attorney, District of Utah Paul M. Warner and Ronald J. Yengich, a prominent defense attorney in Utah. The words of Mr. Warner resonated with me, explaining all the many reasons he loved being a prosecutor, many of the same reasons I loved being a prosecutor. But even more important were these powerful words of Mr. Yengich:

I have a statement in my office: ‘To prosecute is human, to defend is divine.’ I believe in my heart of hearts that I will be accused before the great white throne and Christ will be my advocate, and he will certainly be defending a guilty client. I know that about myself. I am a defense attorney because I know all of the errors I have committed in my life and the luck that I have to be standing in front of you honorable people after a life that has been full of mistakes and errors that could have put me in trouble.” The imagery of these words have vividly stuck with me all these years since.  This philosophy has become one of the brightest guiding lights in my career.

A big turning point in solidifying my personal philosophy in defending guilty individuals, was an article entitled “Dialogue Between a Prosecutor and Defense Attorney” in the Clark Memorandum, a magazine put out by the J. Rueben Clark law school at Brigham Young University. This article highlighted a one-hour discussion the 2005 Orrin G. Hatch Distinguished Trial Lawyer Conference between United States Attorney, District of Utah Paul M. Warner and Ronald J. Yengich, a prominent defense attorney in Utah. The words of Mr. Warner resonated with me, explaining all the many reasons he loved being a prosecutor, many of the same reasons I loved being a prosecutor. But even more important were these powerful words of Mr. Yengich:

I have a statement in my office: ‘To prosecute is human, to defend is divine.’ I believe in my heart of hearts that I will be accused before the great white throne and Christ will be my advocate, and he will certainly be defending a guilty client. I know that about myself. I am a defense attorney because I know all of the errors I have committed in my life and the luck that I have to be standing in front of you honorable people after a life that has been full of mistakes and errors that could have put me in trouble.” The imagery of these words have vividly stuck with me all these years since.  This philosophy has become one of the brightest guiding lights in my career.

All of us are guilty. We’ve all made mistakes. Some are just more serious than others. My goal is to provide the assistance and protection that each of my clients deserve, despite their guilt. I will forever protect my client’s rights, but I cannot defend their actions.  I defend the rights of the guilty because that is what is right and just.

I strive to live by what Mr. Yengich calls “The Defense Attorney’s Oath” (quoted from Walt Whitman):

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals. Despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and the crazy. Devote your income and labor to others. Hate tyrants. Have patience and indulgence toward the people. Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or any number of men. Go freely with powerful uneducated persons and the young and mothers of families. Reexamine all that you have been told at school or in church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your soul.