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Why we defend the indefensible

How do you defend the indefensible?

This week, a lawyer in Norway named Geir Lippestad answered questions from the press about his new client, accused in a case so terrible it's still hard to grasp.

Asked if Anders Behring Breivik showed any empathy for the young victims in the mass shooting last week, the lawyer answered: "No."

Another reporter asked if he had hesitated to take this case.

Yes, at first, he said. But he decided, "If I said no to this job, I said no to democracy."

Which seems like a pretty good answer.

How do you defend the indefensible? Criminal defense lawyers on the worst cases, the accused child killers, serial rapists or mass murderers, must hear that question in their sleep: How do you do what you do? How do you represent the best interests of someone like Julie Schenecker, the Tampa woman accused of shooting her own teenage son and daughter dead in their home in the suburbs?

I called Byron Hileman, who has handled many murder cases in his 35 years at it, more than 20 involving the death penalty and some "pretty bad folks." He represents Dontae Morris, charged in the murders of Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, as well as three other Tampa men. Yes, Hileman is familiar with the question.

Years back, he told a mentor he was tired of the system. "I'm sick of all the nastiness and so forth, the games that are played, the problems the system has," Hileman remembers saying. "I don't know if I want to do this kind of work."

His mentor told him: "If you're going to be a member of the church, you have to believe in God." It took a minute to get it.

"You can't have a commitment you turn on and off," he says now.

He calls the system imperfect and also the best that exists, the cases "terribly sad." No one wins. But without the structure of our system, "we'd have the law of the jungle, or lynch mob justice."

Longtime defense lawyer Robert Fraser, defending Julie Schenecker, says the question speaks to how little we're taught in American civics about how the criminal court system is supposed to work.

Lawyers new to the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office are given an analogy about a different profession: "Trauma surgeons are highly trained and have a specific skill," says Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "When someone is wheeled in on a gurney, no one says, 'This is a good person — work hard' or 'This is a bad person — don't do so much.' "

"We're defending the Constitution," Dillinger says. "They don't let you pick and choose what part of the Constitution you want to defend."

Dillinger was once on the defense team for Oba Chandler, convicted of killing an Ohio mother and her two daughters and dumping their bodies in Tampa Bay. But the heaviest disapproval Dillinger remembers was when he represented a man charged with the triple murder of a grandmother, mother and an 11-year-old.

When people ask how he sleeps at night, representing guilty people, he always tells them it's the innocent ones that keep you up.

Which seems like a pretty good answer, too. Why defend the indefensible? Because for you or me to be innocent until proven guilty, somebody has to.

Why we defend the indefensible 07/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 10:03pm]

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