Sympathy for the Devil
February 8, 2018 | The first criminal defense attorney I ever worked for changed my worldview with a set of simple ideas in one of the first real conversations I had with him. I had asked him if it ever bothered him, knowing what some of his clients had done and defending them all the same. He conceded that it did, but that it was worth seeing the best in people—worth defending them in the eyes of the law—despite what they had done. One of the core principles of the U.S. criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. Likewise, the U.S. Constitution enshrines the right to an impartial trial in its Sixth Amendment. Accordingly, even those charged with the worst crimes deserve an impartial trial in which the burden of proof is on the state. The government should be held to a high standard and cannot take advantage of these people due to their alleged crimes.
I found his ideas to be profound, and not only because I was a few drinks in at this point in our conversation. While he was simply reiterating facts I had learned in my eighth-grade history class, I felt my perspective of those accused within my society deeply challenged. While I had long believed that the criminal justice system was classist and racist, particularly in the context of police brutality and the war on drugs, I had never actively thought outside the realm of conventional social justice. Accordingly, I felt like a bit of an idiot.
I have since strived to find the very best in my defense firm’s clients. Constantly pushing myself to sympathize with any and every aspect of their lives has proven to be no easy task. After all, what I do I have in common with an alleged sex offender? Violent drug dealer? Child abuser? I find myself asking a similar question in the event of Mark Salling’s death. Made famous by the now off-air comedy Glee, Salling committed suicide in face of a prison sentence he would face for possessing child pornography. Comments on social media and news sites are rife with statements expressing satisfaction with his death because of the terrible things he did.
Terrible, they were. The purchase and use of child pornography means that somewhere in the world, that child is actually being abused sexually. No degree of removal can change that fact. Even so, I found myself saddened by Salling’s suicide. I thought about the level of anguish it takes for suicide to become a preferable option. I thought of his family, who had to go through first his criminal case, and then his suicide. I thought about the possibility that Salling knew what he was doing was terribly wrong, but that he lived in a society so quick to judge and without the resources to help him with his problem. If we lived in a world with such resources, would he have had the ability to not only seek the treatment he needed, but also prevent more children from being sexually abused? I marveled at how much pain and suffering was created as a result of this messy situation.
Perhaps I am going to extremes to find the good that may not exist in that person. It is possible Salling had no remorse for what he did and only committed suicide to avoid a prison sentence that would lie in starkest contrast to his previously lavish and privileged lifestyle. It is also worth noting that this was not Salling’s first run-in with the law. In the end, I cannot definitively say what is true, as I do not know the facts of his case.
I have also pondered this exercise—finding good in the bad—in the broader context of the #MeToo movement. Countless people in my life have been victims of sexual harassment and assault. As revolting, yet unsurprising headline after headline flickered their way through my newsfeed, I was lost. Men who I once celebrated such as Louis C.K. and Al Franken are now awash in accusations that they admit are valid. Knowing that they are guilty, should I still seek to find good in them? Because an individual commits an atrocious act, are they entirely atrocious people?
It seems hypocritical to be saddened by Salling’s suicide, yet satisfied with the fact that these abusive men’s careers are forever ruined. I do not have an answer for this quandary now, and I hope that time proves enlightening.
The best argument I have is that I advocate for a more restorative justice system in which those found guilty are returned to society both sustainably and progressively. I perhaps naively hope that those convicted could serve as a resource to their communities and prevent those crimes from occurring again. It is a tragic waste to condemn these people and their acts, casting them out of society, only to face the same problem with other people within society. Crime recidivism and a lack of crime prevention are twin problems that must be addressed.
Furthermore, our society needs to do a better job of finding nuance in troubling situations. This is true for many things, but the criminal justice system exemplifies this problem well. Innocence and guilt, despite their seeming opposition, are not mutually exclusive and should not be considered as such, either. There are bad people who do bad things in the criminal justice system, surely. Most people in that system need more help than they do punishment, however, and we would all be better off by acknowledging that and giving them the help they need.
Sophia Freuden is a legal assistant in criminal law and a former participant in the Fulbright Program in Russia.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.