Criminal defense work deserves your respect

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A recent campaign flier released by the incumbent district attorney states that voters should be concerned about the character of his challenger, Dean Johansson, because Mr. Johansson “[n]ow defends child molesters, rapists and other violent criminals as a long-time defense attorney.” This statement is more than troubling.

The role of the criminal defense attorney is enshrined by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. As recognized by the United States Supreme Court, a fundamental and essential prerequisite to a fair criminal justice system is the right to be defended by competent and effective lawyers. The Court stated, “… reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

Those who may have once thought that the criminal justice system is infallible would be considered the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand to hold that view today. In the last decade, the validity of certain “forensic sciences” such as bite marks, blood-spatter patterns, ballistics and hair, fiber, and handwriting analysis have been called into question as the product of highly subjective analysis and inexact methodologies. DNA analysis has exonerated hundreds of people who were convicted of crimes they did not commit, some only days before their scheduled executions. A large percentage of these exonerations occurred after the police obtained confessions to the crime. These exonerations were only possible because biological evidence was gathered and preserved. For many in prison, biological evidence does not exist to clear wrongful convictions. While it may be an uncomfortable truth, there are untold numbers of people serving time for crimes they did not commit.

Thanks to the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office and the rest of the criminal defense bar, clients accused of violence or sex crimes including child molestation and rape have been exonerated because the accusations were untrue.

Given this information, does it make any sense to impugn the character of those who are responsible for zealously defending the accused, testing the government’s evidence, and insisting that guilt be established beyond a reasonable doubt? A strong criminal defense bar is in everyone’s best interest. As the famous Clarence Darrow said, “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.”

Tracie Olson, Yolo County Public Defender

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