Can a Good Lawyer be a Good Person? by Ronald Sullivan at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

So, when I was a law student, I read an article by a law professor who’s now a friend and colleague. But the very first line of that article has stuck with me for 25 years. It’s haunted me, in fact. The first line is this: “Can a good lawyer be a good person?” I see everybody laughs, because you’re thinking, “No. A good lawyer cannot be a good person.” Most of the time, this question comes from this notion of, how can you defend the guilty? How can you defend someone whom you think has committed some sort of crime? I’m going to tell you about one of my clients.

I had a client charged with a serious assault. I should say, before I became a law professor, I was a public defender in Washington, DC. So many years ago, I defended a man who’s accused of an assault and the major witness against him was a guy – I’ll call him John – I won’t give his real name. John was a heroin addict. It was a very, very, very close case. In the end, I gave a closing that had something to do with reasonable doubt.

So, in the District of Columbia, the definition of reasonable doubt is this, “A reasonable doubt is a doubt upon which you can base a reason.” It’s the sort or doubt – they’re pretty slick there – reasonable doubt is a doubt upon which you can base a reason. It is the sort of doubt that makes you pause or hesitate in the greater, more meaningful aspects of life. The sort of doubt that makes you pause or hesitate in the greater, more meaningful aspects of life.

So, I said something like this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, imagine that you’re having breakfast. You’re getting your kids ready for school, you pour some Cheerios and some milk, and little Johnny and little Sally are eating away. It’s like a normal day. Then you take them by the hand, you walk them to the bus stop like you do any other day. You walk outside, but something’s different. The bus is not there.

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The normal bus driver is never late. You wait, you wait, you wait. Then all of a sudden you hear the sound of tires screaming around the corner, knocking over your neighbors’ garbage can, and it comes up to a screeching halt in front of your house. They open the door, and it’s not the normal bus driver. It’s John, the heroin addict.

You look in and you say, “Where’s the bus driver?”, and the new guy says, he starts scratching, and he says, “I don’t know, I don’t know, he’s off today, I’m driving the bus.” And you look in, and you say, “Sir, there’s a hypodermic needle in your arm, are you diabetic?” And he says, “No, no, I’m not diabetic, I’m on heroin, but, but, but you can trust me.”

Ladies and gentlemen, if you pause of hesitate in putting your child on that bus, you have reasonable doubt, and you have a solemn duty to acquit.” Now, I’ll tell you a little secret, trial lawyers never tell stories unless the result is that they won. So we got an acquittal in that case.

As the introducer said, over the course of my academic career, I’ve worked to free over 6,000 wrongly incarcerated people. I worked… I worked as a young lawyer very, very hard on that case. I thought about how to make the jury understand and remembered from my law school training something Oliver Wendell Holmes said. He said that the life of the law is not logic. It’s experience. “The life of the law is not logic, it’s experience.” That means that the language of the law is all about people and our common experiences, and I wanted the jury to understand why they had to realize that there was reasonable doubt, and I did this because I was 100% sure that my client was absolutely beyond the reasonable doubt guilty.

It’s what public defenders do. Often times, they defend people who may be factually culpable of the crime. I was pretty sure that that was the case, and that’s why I didn’t give names earlier. But why do we do this? Why do we do this? I’m thinking about a young man named Willie Stuckey. It’s a case I worked on two years ago.

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A kid who was arrested when he was 15 years old. 29 years later, he and his co-defendant were exonerated. That was in New York, they arrested the wrong boys, they spent a long time, just shy of 30 years in jail. And finally, they were exonerated. Willie Stuckey never got to set foot though, outside of the jail prison.

He never did because he died in prison. He died at 34 of a heart attack. He was an actually innocent client. In order for the rights of all of us, the rights of the guilty and the innocent alike to be protected, we have to live in a system where we vigorously, vigorously defend the guilty. A lot of things happened wrong in Willie Stuckey’s case.

Prosecution didn’t turn over critical evidence. But one of the things I want to focus on now is his lawyer did absolutely nothing. We have to insist that we have a system where the lawyers, who get a bad rep, I recognize, where the lawyers do everything they can within the bounds and the contours of the law to ensure each and every person, regardless of means, regardless of whether they think they’re innocent of guilty, they have to do everything within their power to ensure that they have a fair trial. You see, when I think of Willie Stuckey and the 21 other people whom we exonerated in New York, who were actually guilty, it reminds me that justice doesn’t just fall out of the sky, you know “Justice. Oh, there it is,” and it happens. Justice doesn’t fall out of the sky.

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