In praise of the public defender

This line in the Associated Press story about the man accused as the Boston Marathon bomber is worth considering in some detail today.

Federal public defender Miriam Conrad, whose office has been asked to represent Tsarnaev, asked that two death penalty lawyers be appointed to represent Tsarnaev, “given the magnitude of this case.”

How bad must it be to be the person representing arguably the most hated man in America? And how do you go about convincing someone else to join the team?

I thought back many years ago to a small town in eastern New York where a young man, who had massacred his family, was acquitted at trial. “How,” the defender was asked, “could you represent a guilty person?” His answer provided me with a respect for defense attorneys I hold to this day.

“I never asked him if he was guilty,” he said.

Because it didn’t matter. His job was to be sure justice turned in a fair way, not to hold the horse at a lynching.

If anything, the case could bring a new spotlight on an important and underappreciated segment of the justice system — the public defender.

Elie Mystal at Above the Law notes the qualifications of the two public defenders in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — one a graduate of Harvard, the other from Yale.

“I love a country where public enemy number one gets an Ivy-covered defense before he’s thrown in jail for the rest of his life,” Mystal says.

I love the federal public defenders and you should too. Their work is the last bulwark preserving the thin line between “fair trial” and “show trial.” They defend those who are presumed to be guilty, and those who are guilty. They defend the undeserving. It’s dirty work, and they are not compensated nearly well enough for it.

But, like a sewer systems operator, if they don’t do their job then the whole system gets backed up with our own waste. No matter how pure or righteous our prosecutorial intentions might be, prosecution creates the nasty, smelly byproduct of zealotry. Federal public defenders stand against that. They protect all of our rights by defending their clients.

Damned if I’d want to do it. I’m happy to have bourgeois conversations about the importance of presumption of innocence, but if you actually put me in a room with somebody like Tsarnaev I’d be like, “Eww, gross, can we put him in the Hannibal Lecter mask or something?”

Just days before the bombing, Ms. Conrad put up a fight against cuts to public defenders in the federal “sequester” scheme.

“We are simply not going to be available on certain days,” she told the Boston Globe. “We can’t start cutting things that affect our ability to provide representation for our clients.”

” Let’s hope those days include Tsarnaev’s trial dates,” a commenter wrote on a Wall St. Journal story about the her.

Because some people don’t really completely understand what makes this country so unique.

From the archive: A day in the life of a public defender