In the film, The Whole Truth, Keanu Reeves plays a troubled defense attorney who grapples with moral and legal issues in defense of his client. In defending a young man accused of murdering his wealthy father, Reeve’s character soon learns, “Everybody lies.” The line between what is legal and what is moral is often in question when one observes the legal system.
For that reason you should consider criminal defense as your next research paper topic.
The Whole Truth
The film debuted in March 2016 in Japan and is only now being released in the U.S. Kaori Shoji interviewed the central character of the film in a March 30, 2016, article for JapanTimes.co.jp, “Keanu Reeves’ concoction of ‘The Whole Truth.’”
Keanu Reeves discussed some of the revelations that he encountered in preparing for his role.
“One thing I learned: The defense attorney does not have an obligation to the truth. He has an obligation to his client, and his priority is to win. That’s how it works,” Reeves said.
Joseph F. McSorley explained the system in a February 1998 article for FloridaBar.org, “Criminal Lawyers or Lawyer Criminals? Ethics of the Criminal Defense Bar Under Attack.”
“If he can confuse a witness, even a truthful one, or make him appear at a disadvantage, unsure or indecisive, that will be his normal course. […]In this respect, as part of our modified adversary system and as part of the duty imposed on the most honorable defense counsel, we countenance the required conduct which in many instances has little, if any, relation to the search for truth,” McSorley said.
The attorney is obligated to give his/her client the best possible defense even if the client has admitted guilt to the attorney in confidence. In our system of law even the most egregious offenders have the right to a fair trial and “due process” of law. Furthermore, our system dictates that it is the judge and jury who must determine guilt or innocence, not the attorneys.
James T. Bayorgeon explained the “Ethical Problems in Criminal Defense Work,” in an article for the Summer 1958 issue of the Marquette Law Review.
“If an attorney should defend only those whom he believes to be innocent, how then are the ‘guilty’ defendants to obtain counsel, the right to which is admitted. Further, is not the attorney usurping the function of the judge and jury by prejudging the guilt or innocence of the client,” Bayorgeon said.
It can be troubling for the lay person to observe the criminal justice system at work. Paul G. Haskell gave readers an inside look at the system and possible alternatives in his book, Why Lawyers Behave as They Do.
Haskell, who teaches legal ethics, began the book by explaining that the legal profession has a code of ethics that some perceive as being at odds with morality. He used many examples to illustrate acceptable attorney conduct.
For example, a mugger admitted his crime to his attorney. The lawyer is not required to divulge this information to the court. In an effort to discredit the eye-witness’s testimony, the lawyer on cross-examination brought out that she had several convictions for shoplifting, that she had been drinking for several hours that evening, and that she had had a violent argument with the accused mugger at a bar earlier in the evening.
An attorney cannot present evidence that he/she knows to be false nor is it permitted to cross-examine an opposing witness purely for the purpose of harassment.
“On its face the conduct is immoral or destructive, but it is maintained that there are societal purposes being served, the value of which justifies the behavior. […] The object of this book is to explain the rationale for lawyers’ behavior and to assess its validity,” Haskell said.
Do you think that lawyers are destructive in the way that they conduct a criminal defense? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.