Friday, January 31, 2003

The Dignity of the Offender

A friend of mine, who is a prosecuting attorney, chided me for my comments on Mr. McCaffrey and his attorney below. He says:

"Welcome back to blogging. I enjoyed reading your commentary today. With respect to its contents, I respectfully dissent.

The role of a defense attorney is not well understood. People often equate it with merely getting criminals off on technicalities. The reality, however, is that both defense attorneys and prosecutors, whether they themselves realize it or not, are actually there to uphold and defend what are ultimately eternal truths, i.e., the Moral Law and the Dignity of Man. This occurs most dramatically and eloquently at hearings on sentencing, which, when done properly, can overflow with Beauty and Truth before finally ending with a Just result.

Where the crime is grave, the prosecutor's role, in part, is indeed to impress upon the Court and the public the magnitude of the Evil the defendant has done.

Very significantly, however, this is not the role of the defense attorney. On the contrary, the defense attorney should endeavor to impress upon the Court and the public the dignity of the defendant, lest this important truth be obscured by the seriousness of the offense or by the anger of the victims.

The defense attorney at sentencing is there to say Good things about someone who in some cases has done some very Bad things. Admittedly, "this is a very sad day for my client" is not a particularly effective way to proceed in this regard, in my opinion. Rhetorical mediocrity, however, does not necessarily represent narcissim, self-pity, or any of the other moral defects identified in your commentary, either on the part of the attorney, or, less still, on the part of the client."

OK, I admit I read perhaps too much into the attorney's fatuous statement. And I certainly want to recognize the dignity of the person, even those persons guilty of heinous crimes. But I also think there is such a thing as misplaced compassion. It seems to me that the attorney in this case was seeking to elicit false compassion for Mr. McCaffrey, in order to win him a more lenient sentence. But the fact is that, in this case, McCaffrey is not deserving of leniency. In his case compassion does not equal leniency. He is, in fact, already enjoying leniency, considering he has been sentenced to only 15 years when he admits to the serial molestation of numerous boys on numerous occasions.

Why do so many attorneys, in their necessary efforts to uphold the dignity of the accused and/or guilty, resort to trying to make their defendants out to be victims? That is what is truly ignoble.