Why public defense is a question that I have heard many times during law school, from various sources. It is the first question in every PD interview, and the most difficult one to answer. It is asked to measure commitment and maturity; my answer has always been difficult to form because it derives from an innate need to do battle with an outrageous criminal justice system, which I find easier to express in action than in words. Family members have asked me the question, usually with frowns as they advise me that I am throwing away everything I have worked hard to earn. College friends counter my answer with wonderment that I could stand next to dangerous criminals. Fellow law students will sometimes ask how I can represent guilty people, suggest prosecution as an alternative way to make change, or praise me for my goodness.
The truth is that there is no one simple way to answer the question. Yes, there’s an injustice going on in our law system and I cannot just stand by and watch. No, it is not my goodness but my selfish, desperate desire to find meaning in my work. And finding meaning in one’s work varies from person to person. There’s also the timeless challenge of the underdog, of throwing everything that I can muster of my mind and body at a seemingly faceless and massive government bearing down on an individual. It’s thrilling and daunting, and addicting. But, the most important reason of all is the people who I will be representing.
The people I will one day represent will be stripped of their humanity in some way. Classmates have argued that these defendants should not have committed the crime in the first place. But there’s a range of crimes, from the most harmless to the most profane, and yet numbers are still assigned to files, people still hounded by police detectives, jumpsuits made ready for those too poor to make bail. But my clients will be human beings, and that is precisely why there are constitutional protections in the criminal justice system. My clients will all be different from each other, with motivations for making certain decisions.
I had a client last summer who stole the same computer from the same place multiple times. He received prison time. A different client was a young man who attempted to rob a place where he once worked. Everyone said he had a lot of promise, so the judge set aside the jury sentence and imposed probation. I celebrated this decision. The man who stole the computer was the same age, but had clearly shown that he had no promise to change. He was, in fact, mentally disabled, and had taken the computer each time to watch Youtube videos, his way of communicating with the world. I cried when he was sentenced to prison. Both of these men were deserving of mercy, and I want to make sure that next time, both will receive it.
Teresa Hepler is a 2L from Gaithersburg, MD. She studied Classics at University of Maryland and at the University of Chicago. When she’s not agonizing over criminal injustices, she’s usually indulging in her guilty pleasures of fantasy novels and period dramas, or walking her dog, Frigg (named for a Norse goddess).