The Obligations of Criminal Lawyers when Defending a Guilty Client.


Say a client tells his lawyer in confidence that he is guilty of the crime, but does not want to plead guilty. What options does the criminal lawyer have? Must the lawyer admit it to the judge, still help his client, or ask for advice from a third party?


Following the principle of attorney-client privilege, the criminal lawyer has two options: to resign from the council and never discuss the confession, or continue defending the client with the false premise that the client is indeed innocent. Whatever the client confesses to the attorney is confidential, and cannot be testified against the client in court.


Under American jurisdiction, all defendants are believed to be innocent until the jury finds the client guilty or the defendant knowingly and voluntarily pleads guilty. Circumstances by which the defendant may plead guilty are whereby the evidence is incomplete or very weak, or if the prosecutor is willing to make a good deal.


Furthermore, if the client intends to commit perjury (being willingly unfaithful while under oath), the lawyer’s ethical obligations are to dissuade the client from committing perjury. This may be by advising the client that if perjury is committed, the lawyer will be forced to withdraw representation and disclose the reason for withdrawal if required to do so. However, if the client insists on false testimony, the lawyer should withdraw representation immediately and report to the court.


Yet, in regards to criminal law, it is the lawyer’s job to ensure the best outcome of the trial for their client. Thus, if the client pleads not guilty, despite being knowingly guilty, the attorney must attempt to convince the court that their client is not guilty, and can do so by never explicitly claiming that the client is innocent.


Some limitations to these proceedings are whereby attorneys use underhanded strategies such as by falsifying evidence or compelling witnesses. Also, as previously mentioned, breaking attorney-client privilege would be a major case of misconduct and would cost the attorney their legal license, with few repercussions for the client.


Overall, despite the irrefutable knowledge that a client is guilty, the attorney, if the case is accepted, can continue to plead not guilty, to provide the client’s innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. This may be achieved by raising questions such as “what was the motive for my client to commit the crime”, or discrediting evidence presented by the prosecution side. Thus, by stating that the prosecutors have not proven beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant's client is guilty, the client can have their best interests met, and the attorney is less morally compromised.


While in reality, attorneys will most likely withdraw from the case due to individual moral and ethical principles of defending a guilty client, especially in high-profile or serious criminal cases, the legal system does allow for those knowingly guilty to be proven innocent. As all clients are innocent until proven guilty.


Sources:

https://law.stackexchange.com/questions/7965/what-does-a-lawyer-do-if-they-know-for-absolute-certain-that-their-client-is-gui

https://www.alabar.org/office-of-general-counsel/formal-opinions/2009-01/