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How does a lawyer separate personal values from the law when prosecuting or defending?

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Gregg’s Answer

What a great question.

As a prosecutor you are representing the state or federal government, not yourself. When in court, you even say your name "for the state" or the "United States" when asked who you are representing. It make it much easier to separate your personal beliefs from your role.

As a criminal defense attorney, you should never do anything that violates your moral code. But most defense attorneys believe in the sacred rights of due process, of a fair trial and that everyone deserves representation. This applies no matter the defendant. So even if you are defending someone who did something you find heinous, you seperate your belief in the rights of defendants from the acts of the defendant. It is not always easy but necessary for the system to work. Without proper representation, justice could not be served.
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Kim’s Answer

Hi Destiny!

I am not a lawyer. However, I went from being a retired police officer to assisting Criminal Defense and Civil Rights attorneys. I was a person who believed "The law is the law. period." I thought I would have trouble transitioning. I did not! Why not? Because, as an attorney, your job is to do the best you possibly can for your client. One of the first cases I worked on concerned a young man whose face was punched up pretty badly because he was "resisting arrest" and "failed to identify." It didn't matter what I thought of the situation. The challenge was to win the criminal cases, so we could then file the Civil Rights case. We did!

All of your clients are people first. They have children, parents, and spouses who will be adversely affected if your client is locked up. Even if they did in fact commit the crime, it is still devastating.

I can't speak from a prosecutor's perspective. A prosecutor represents the state, which, is really "the people." His or her job is to see that the desire, and will, of the people, as codified by law, is carried out.

As a police officer, stepping into the uniform was like stepping into a costume, playing a role. My personal beliefs did not matter. I arrested people I did not want to arrest, and released people I wanted to arrest, because that was what my job required. I would imagine prosecutors do something similar. You will learn to "compartmentalize," keeping work and personal lives separate.

The law is very interesting!

Wishing you the best!


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Jennifer’s Answer

Hi Destiny, I used to work as a Criminal Defense Attorney and would get this question quite often. It can be difficult sometimes to separate your personal values and religious beliefs. However, in this line of work everything really comes down to the letter of the law. Can the prosecutor establish the elements of the crime and get their exhibits into evidence? Were the constitutional rights of the person violated during the process? Whether or not you find a particular crime offensive to your personal, moral, or religious beliefs falls outside this analysis. It can take practice and perspective but it is important to develop your professional identity which is objective and somewhat removed from personal beliefs and preferences. Hope this answers your question.



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Richard’s Answer

My wife is a bankruptcy attorney. All of her preconceived notions of bankruptcy clients went out the window when she started. She found that all classes and types of people have bad luck. Her job is to help the client, even if she would not have made the same financial or life decisions herself. She separates the rules of law from her opinion and loves her job. I assume this same logic would follow in other types of law as well.
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R’s Answer

When prosecuting, you shouldn't have to divorce your personal values from the case. As a prosecutor, if you don't believe in the case, you are ethically required to give it back to your supervisor, another DDA, or drop the case.

I've never been a defense attorney but have many friends that are. Apart from cases they personally believe in, every single person in this country--whether they are citizens--have an absolute constitutional right to a fair trial. Looking at it this way, it might ease the burden.

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Kyle’s Answer

If you find yourself working in a job where it does not align with your personal values, then it probably isn't the right job for you. If you are considering criminal defense, then the issue is less about whether "defending criminals" aligns with your personal values, and more about identifying those personal values which you hold that align with the work in front of you.

The vast majority of criminal cases on which I have worked typically involve people who have just made a dumb mistake. They regret what they did, and they want to try and get their lives back on track. Having a criminal conviction on their record, and even worse, being confined in jail or prison, severely limits these peoples' ability to try and make something more of their lives. If they're having trouble with drugs, then getting into drug treatment might help them however.

It certainly does happen, however, that a criminal defendant will simply be unrepentant. In such cases you stick to the core values of the legal profession. Be a zealous advocate for your client. Take all the facts that are present in the case, never mischaracterize the facts, and present them in the way that best serves the client. While I was in trial practice class during law school, we were given a problem case involving domestic violence. In this hypothetical case the wife said her husband attacked her because he was drunk, and the husband said his wife attacked him because she was drunk and he was just defending himself (this is a very common real world scenario). Our professor asked us a very important question: "Is it impossible that the husband's version of events could be true?" The obvious answer is "no." Even if you think the defendant is a scum-bag, and even if you are pretty sure (s)he did something deplorable, the facts will usually fall in such a way that there is a perfectly legitimate argument pointing to their innocence, or at least to a lesser sentence than the prosecutor is seeking.

And therein we come back to the core value, be a zealous advocate for your client. Because you yourself can never really know for certain what happened, it becomes easier to step back, look at the facts objectively, and present them in the way that best serves your client. It doesn't matter what you yourself think is most likely, all that matters is what is possible. It is then for the jury to decide what is most likely, or more accurately, what they believe beyond a reasonable doubt.

This core value absolutely applies to prosecutors as much as it does to defendants. I believe those prosecutors with whom I have worked (in opposition) pursue their side for a couple of reasons. One, to protect victims, if there are any, whether past or future. And two, to make sure the defendant receives an appropriate sentence sufficient to convince them not to repeat any other offenses.

Hope this helps!

Kyle recommends the following next steps:

Go to your local criminal courthouse, or call your local district attorney's office or public defender's office. Ask at any of these locations whether there are any trials which you can observe then or in the near future. All court proceedings are open to the public unless specific findings are made as to why they should be closed. Ask if you can speak to either of the attorneys or the judge. If you can, ask about different cases they've seen, and if they have had difficulties applying their personal values in those cases. Share with them your own experiences, and ask how they would apply the values of the legal profession to your problems.