The Jeffrey Willis trial has been in the news a lot lately. If you’re not familiar with this case, Willis was convicted of first-degree for the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch on November 2, 2017.
Police believe Bletsch had been jogging on a country road when she was shot to death by Willis when he attempted to kidnap her and she fought back.
Willis was not a suspect in the case until a teenage girl – who testified at his trial this week – escaped from him and identified him to police.
The subsequent search of Willis’ home leads to evidence he had killed both Rebekah Bletsch and Jessica Heeringa – who disappeared from her job in May of 2013 and whose body has not been found.
Many people observing this trial may have wondered why an attorney would want to represent someone like Willis.
Much about the case seems to say that Willis murdered at least two women and tried to murder another teenage girl.
Why Defend Criminals?
What about the men who defended notorious killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, who seemed to have no conscience?
What would cause anyone to want to defend a man like Jeffrey Willis in court?
If you are interested, there is a book written by Ted Bundy’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, called The Devil’s Defender.
There is also an interesting article in The Guardian from the point of view of lawyers for several famous criminals. But here are some thoughts:
The Adversarial Justice System
We have an adversarial justice system. This means that a case is made and arguments are argued by advocates. This process presents two sides of the story – or two different stories – to a jury who ultimately decides whether someone is guilty and deserving of punishment.
The vast numbers of people who commit crimes aren’t wealthy. They don’t win their cases on technicalities by cunning lawyers. The truth is that – for most people who commit crimes or are charged with crimes – the state holds most of the power.
It is presented as a fair fight. However, most individuals don’t have the resources to fight back against a system that has law enforcement and prosecutors working for it.
For there to be a chance for everyone to have a fair fight – especially those people who are wrongfully charged (and that number is higher than you think) – everyone has to have access to defense in court -even if they are guilty.
Do Criminals Deserve Defense?
Do even the guilty deserve a defense? Yes. But how can someone defend a guilty person?
First of all, a defense lawyer doesn’t know if his or her client is guilty when they take a case. We don’t take the word of the police because law enforcement has already made their case. We know that law enforcement makes mistakes and is subject to bias. Additionally, we know that interrogation techniques can lead to false confessions.
We do our own investigations. We may not know if someone is guilty until months into a case unless a client tells us. In addition, there is always the chance that a client really is innocent.
Criminal defense lawyers don’t just argue court cases. They also negotiate plea deals for clients and advocate for fair sentencing if a client loses his or her case.
This may not be an aspect you think about if you are not a lawyer. Defense attorneys often continue to advocate for their clients even after conviction. A defense attorney can help clients get the kind of help they need even in prison.
Criminal defense attorneys provide an important service to society. We defend people’s rights.
You might not know it if you have watched the TV series, Law and Order, but the criminal justice system has much more power on its side than the average criminal.
For many reasons, including advocating for the underdog, defense attorneys are in a position to help people who need help. Each and every one of us has the constitutional right to fair trial and equal representation.
If you or anyone you know needs legal representation, it is critical that a experienced defense attorney be consulted.