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There was one murder per week in this community, so you'd think that, under the law of averages, the law-enforcement authorities, led by District Attorney Hamilton Burger, would at least occasionally arrest a guilty person. But they never did. They always arrested an innocent person, and that person always hired Perry Mason, who always won the case...
Dave Barry Turns 50, regarding Perry Mason

If the viewpoint of the show is that of a defense attorney, his clients will be innocent so often that the defendant being guilty is a subversion.

If the prosecutor is the protagonist, however, then usually the defendant is guilty -- see Law and Order. When we know the guys doing the accusing, the defendant is seldom wrongfully accused, but if the guilt of someone arrested by another cop comes into question, you can bet your ass he's innocent, or at least mostly innocent.

Of course, in Real Life, both defense and prosecution exist for good reasons, because the matter of a defendant's guilt is uncertain. It's a bit odd that either side in a trial would be seen as a "good guy" or "bad guy" when they are, realistically, just people doing their jobs. Even if we know (somehow) that the defendant is guilty, the role of the defense attorney is still valuable, to ensure that the prosecution has actually proven its case.

See also Amoral Attorney for the Evil side.

Examples of Good Lawyers, Good Clients include:


Anime and Manga

  • Played with in Monster, where Vardermann will only take on clients he determines to be innocent.
  • In the Ace Attorney manga, Phoenix gets a call from Robin Wolfe, whose employee Eddie Johnson committed suicide on the way home from a meeting with him, leading Robin to be suspected for his murder, but there are several obvious lies in Robin's account. Phoenix and Maya, after talking to the rest of the people at Wolfe Manor, including Eddie's brother Brock, realize that Robin essentially drove Eddie to suicide by torturing him with spiders even if he didn't kill him himself, and decide to refuse to take his case. They go to look for him, but he's missing, and soon afterward, ends up murdered, and Phoenix ends up defending Robin's innocent brother Bobby.

Comic Books

  • Clumsily averted in a Captain America story where Cap's girlfriend is a lawyer defending the head of A.I.M. Not because she believes everyone is entitled to representation, but because she's got the Idiot Ball this month, and is the only person in the story who sincerely believes he isn't the head of A.I.M.
  • Sometimes averted with Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson's law practice in Daredevil. Most of the people they defend are indeed innocent (since Matt can hear the heartbeats to know when he's being lied to), but they believe enough in the letter of the law to have defended some real scumbags.
    • One time in particular, Matt takes the case of a client who he believes to be innocent because of his heartbeat. It's only after he's gotten the client declared innocent of the charges that he realizes he was guilty, but had a pacemaker.

Film

  • Played completely straight in And Justice for All. Al Pacino plays a scrupulous attorney who focuses on defending honest clients, then is blackmailed into protecting a rapist judge who enjoyed screwing with him. He breaks down and tells the jury he hates his client, then quits law forever.
  • Played completely straight in The Devil's Advocate. This is actually Milton's master plan - create the most skilled Amoral Attorneys imaginable, put them at the disposal of the most despicable people in the world, and have them use the loopholes in the law to protect the guilty until the world is filled with human monsters, making the world his and his alone.

  Milton: ...Acquittal after acquittal after acquittal – until the stench of it reaches so high and far into heaven, it chokes the whole fucking lot of them!

    • At the end of the film, after the Reset Button is pushed, Lomax takes the trope to heart and dismisses himself from the defense of a child molester.
  • Subverted in the movie Primal Fear. The defense attorney spends most of the movie trying to prove that his client is not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He succeeds and the client is sentenced to a mental hospital with a good chance of being released. However, the attorney find out that his client was just pretending to be insane and is actually guilty of not only the murder he was charged with, but another as well. Because of attorney-client confidentiality the attorney can't tell anyone the truth.
  • In Daredevil, Matt Murdock will only accept innocent clients. Because of his super lie-detecting powers, he knows exactly who they are. But of course there aren't that many of them so the movie notes that the firm is nearly broke. To keep the legal scene more exciting in the movie, they apparently made Matt Murdock the prosecuting attorney in a rape case, which private attorneys cannot do unless they have a prosecutor's brief from the state to take the pressure off a Crown Prosecutor or DA for that case. (Who said they didn't?)
    • To be fair, he actually worked partly as a victim's advocate and represented the alleged victim, but they still don't actually make closing arguments like he did, only speak at sentencing (the defendant was acquitted). So it still counts as Hollywood Law.
      • That was his opening statement, not his closing statement.
    • It also gets lampshaded: Foggy Nelson asks Matt if he remembers being taught in jurisprudence class that sometimes you have to defend people who might be guilty. Matt replies he was always bad at that bit.

Literature

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends an innocent man, but his opponent (the prosecutor) is portrayed as a good person who's just doing his job. Interestingly, To Kill a Mockingbird mentions Atticus having defended obviously guilty people in the past, but because he's a good guy, he tried to make them Plea Bargain.
  • In Eric Linklater's children's novel The Wind on the Moon, this is averted - because there is just one prosecutor and one defender around in the small town, they are the best of friends, and (secretly, it is pointed out) take turns winning their cases! The case in the book, however, turns out different, because they cannot completely control neither judge nor jury.
  • A historical novel about Abraham Lincoln and his wife included a scene from Lincoln's legal career in which he found out in court that his client, bringing a lawsuit alleging failure to pay a debt, had in fact been paid but believed the defendant didn't have any proof of paying him. When the client, caught out, shamelessly admitted his lie, Lincoln turned and walked out of the courtroom, telling the judge, "Your Honor, I'm going to wash my hands."
  • In Henrik Ibsen's A Dolls House, the main character's husband is a defense attorney who is so uncompromisingly moral that he only defends clients he knows to be innocent beforehand. He is, of course, flat broke.
  • See Rumpole of the Bailey in Live Action TV below - the books and Tv Series are remarkably similar.

Live-Action TV

  • Perry Mason may be slightly Hand Waved because he doesn't like defending the guilty (c.f. "The Case of the Substitute Face").
    • Which would mean he knows if the guy is guilty before the trial...
      • Most lawyers will know exactly what their client thinks happened long before the trial starts, because a lawyer cannot prepare a good case unless you tell him everything. That's why we have attorney-client confidentiality. Keeping your own lawyer in the dark is like sending your champion out to fight for you blindfolded. That doesn't mean stupid people don't do it, of course ...
      • However, I have heard that defense attorneys are ethically barred from arguing that their clients are innocent if they know that they aren't. Modern defense attorneys get around this by advising their clients not to tell them whether they did it or not, instead focusing on casting as much reasonable doubt as they can.
      • In the United States, both Prosecutors and Defenders are ethically barred from expressing their opinion of the evidence or the culpability of the accused before the jury. A trial is about the facts, not opinions.
      • My understanding is that lawyers cannot knowingly allow their clients to commit perjury. So if they know their client is guilty that can still present evidence that makes it look as if they are innocent but cannot allow their client to go and the stand and say that they didn't do it nor allow someone else to provide a false alibi.
        • That might also explain why lawyers advise their clients not to answer certain questions, even to deny guilt: Intuitively, silence sounds like an admission of guilt; legally, either answer can get them into hot water, particularly if it was false.
  • Matlock
    • Subverted at least once. And so he puts someone the client cares for on the stand, and all but accuses them of the murder, to make the client break down and confess.
  • A big point of The Practice was that the clients were often guilty. The whole premise was intended to be a subversion. On several occasions, they actually defended someone apparently innocent, then later realized their guilt midway through the trial.
    • One episode featured Bobby Donnell being forced to provide a pro bono defense for an accused qualified rapist. He made it quite clear to the jury (despite the rule prohibiting lawyers from presenting their opinions) that he's sure of his client's guilt and that he doesn't care about what happens to the client but said that the jury must acquit because of the precedent a conviction based on the word of a kid who tells lies to get people's attention would create. The jury found the defendant Not Guilty.
  • Law and Order Trial By Jury intended to show the defense attorneys as well as the prosecutors, but they were depicted as mustache-twirlingly evil.
  • On Shark, whenever James Woods finds out that he's prosecuting an innocent person, he stops until the police can find a more likely candidate.
  • Very much averted on This Is Wonderland. Since the show is mostly about plea court, bail court, and mental health court, the question of whether the client did it is usually a non-issue, and the court will be about deciding what to do with them. A fair few clients plainly deserve to have the book thrown at them (and usually do), while others are more sympathetic, and occasionally get let off altogether.
  • Subverted on Rumpole of the Bailey. While it is true that almost all of Rumpole's clients that we see are in fact innocent of the crime they're on trial for, they are very frequently guilty of some other crime. This is particularly true of the Timsons, a clan of South London "minor villains" who make their living off of petty larceny and fencing, and whose fees seem to pay a fair chunk of Rumpole's own bills.
    • We also don't see most of Rumpole's cases (the series being very irregular), of which he presumably loses a fair number. He also loses a few other cases that we do see.
    • And finally, the one time Rumpole's client admits to him that she was guilty, he immediately says that he can't help her defense any longer and advises that she change her plea to guilty.
  • This is usually played straight in The Rockford Files, but one episode subverts it. Throughout the entire episode, Beth Davenport is trying to clear her client on a murder charge while scared half to death by a stalker. It is theorized that the stalker is someone who is convinced of the guilt of her client, and wants her to be too distracted to possibly clear him. She clears him, but Jim discovers that not only was the client guilty, but he was also the stalker, because he wanted to be able to request a mistrial if he was found guilty because his attorney was clearly distracted.
  • Silk follows an entire chambers, so they can show trials from either side (and sometimes from both sides). Even so, it's fairly realistic about defending the probably-guilty and prosecuting the probably-innocent, and the ethical and moral dilemmas involved in both.
  • Played with a few different ways in Boston Legal. Somewhat justified with Denny, who is often stated to have never lost a case. He, like others on the list, doesn't want to take the case of a guilty person (he wants to protect his perfect record, of course) and when a judge assigns him to defend a child rapist/murderer, Denny goes so far as to shoot his client in the legs to keep from taking the case.
    • For Alan Shore, besides the fact that he does lose very occasionally, it seems as though more often than not, his clients are guilty, he's just so damn good at jury nullification that they get off anyway.
    • And of course played super-straight with a lot of other characters. Even when taking totally ridiculous cases with no real basis in law, the lawyers of Crane, Pool and Schmidt tend to score at least moral victories (for instance, a judge might give them the win on ethical grounds, knowing full-well that the case will be dismissed at the next appeal).
  • Averted in realistic fashion in Raising the Bar. The public defenders often have to defend obviously guilty and morally reprehensible people to best of their ability. Similarly, sometimes the prosecutors have to try to build obviously weak or shoddy cases.

Newspaper Comics

  • Subverted in Bloom County: Steve Dallas's clients are generally homicidal maniacs on trial for murder. Steve usually ends up getting them let off, with disastrous results. In a memorable instance, a little old lady on trial for killing her husband is put under house arrest--in Steve's house. He tries to sell the film rights to Disney.
    • And then aliens reversed Steve's morality, and he acted as the prosecutor against his latest murderer client. "He murdered the entire Moose Lodge ... stabbed them. Brutally. With their own antlers."

Video Games

  • Every Ace Attorney game. The actual subversion does come up, too.
    • Also, there's one case in which in the process of getting his client acquitted of a crime he didn't commit, Phoenix actually, unknowingly, gets him acquitted of several (non-violent) crimes that he did commit. And because of double jeopardy, he can't be tried again.
    • The Ace Attorney Investigations games are about trying to prevent this from happening in the first place by ensuring that the proper guilty party is arrested to begin with. Ace Attorney Investigations 2 plays with it a bit in the final case: first, a defense attorney represents a known guilty character in court because, hey, someone has to do it, and second it turns out that the suspect in case 2 who Edgeworth got acquitted is actually a Fake Cutie Magnificent Bastard who's been playing off Edgeworth's belief in this trope.
    • Some clients are guilty of crimes other than murder, and they often get prosecuted for them afterward. Examples include Lana Skye in the first game (fabricating evidence with Gant, admittedly while being blackmailed) and Machi Tobaye and Vera Misham in Apollo Justice Ace Attorney (the former for cocoon smuggling and the latter for forging the diary page that got Phoenix disbarred).
  • Subverted in Knights of the Old Republic with the Sunry murder trial. Sunry insists he's innocent, one of the key bits of evidence was planted at the scene, and the Sith advocate is a complete jerk... but if you hack into the Republic's computer records, you can find a video showing that Sunry did kill the victim. Confronted about this, he confesses but refuses to plead guilty, leaving you to decide whether to continue to defend him or hand the damning evidence over to the court.

Western Animation

  • Subverted in the Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer Christmas special--the district attorney admits he doesn't want Santa Claus to go to jail, but still has plenty of evidence that points to why he should. When Cousin Mel confesses, however, he's the first one to yell for her to be arrested.
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