It’s almost impossible anymore to turn on the television, look up what’s playing at the movies, or peruse a bookstore, without seeing a story line that relates to the American criminal justice system in one way or another. As a society, we are fascinated with criminals and even more intrigued by the innocent who are accused of a crime. While there are some movies/books that do a fairly accurate job of portraying how the criminal justice system works, most use a good dose of artistic license in order to make the story more interesting. For anyone in the real world who has been accused of crime, this makes it difficult to know what to expect from the experience. For example, in many fictional story lines a great deal of emphasis is put on the guilt or innocence of the client an attorney is representing. In the real world though, do criminal attorneys even need to know if their clients are actually guilty? The answer might surprise you.
The Attorney-Client Relationship
Let’s start with some basic information about the attorney-client relationship. The relationship an attorney has with a client is one of confidentiality. This is not just an ideal, but an ethical requirement. All attorneys must abide by a set of ethical rules or they risk having their license to practice law suspended or revoked. One of those rules relates to the confidential nature of the relationship criminal attorneys have with their clients. This means that your attorney cannot repeat, or otherwise disseminate, anything you share with him/her except in very rare circumstances, such as to prevent a serious crime from occurring or to prevent death or serious injury. Note that even these narrow exceptions relate to things that have yet to occur. Information relating to a crime you committed in the past is clearly covered under the attorney-client privilege.
Not Guilty vs. Innocent
Next, it is important to understand what your attorney’s job really is. Your attorney’s job is not to prove you innocent but to obtain (ideally) a not guilty verdict or outcome. There is a difference between “innocent” and “not guilty.” First though, a word about the burden in a criminal prosecution. The State of Tennessee, through the prosecuting attorney, has the burden of proving a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is not required to prove anything. In fact, a defendant is not even required to put on a defense at trial because the burden rests with the State to prove each and every element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the State fails in its burden, the defendant should be found not guilty – even if the defendant provided not explanation, put on no defense, and simply rested after the State concluded with its presentation of evidence. It is very important to understand that a “not guilty” verdict does not necessarily mean that the defendant is innocent. It means that the State failed to prove the defendant guilty.
Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell
Now to the answer to the question “Do criminal attorneys even need to know if their clients are actually guilty?” No, in many cases they do not. First, it doesn’t matter if a client is guilty. The job of a criminal defense attorney is to protect a client’s rights throughout the prosecution of a case and to ensure that the client is not found guilty unless the State meets its “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden. It is often not necessary to know if a client is guilty or not for a criminal defense attorney to do his/her job well. As a general rule, criminal attorneys only ask questions of clients when they need to know the answer. If your attorney asks you a question, including “Did you do it?” – answer honestly because your lawyer would not be asking if the answer wasn’t important to protecting you and/or to defending you. Conversely, if your lawyer never asks you “Did you do it?” – don’t volunteer the answer because there may be a good reason why your lawyer doesn’t want to know the answer.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in the State of Tennessee it is in your best interest to consult with the experienced Tennessee criminal attorneys at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.