Three Vital Roles a Defense Counsel Plays

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

For fans of legal dramas that play out on television shows or in the cinema, a defense counsel may appear to be simply somebody who gives impassioned speeches on behalf of their clients. The media often depicts defense counsels as either people of moral conviction upholding the rights of the wrongly accused or as unscrupulous villains defending violent criminals for the sake of their own career goals. The truth is, however, far more complex and nuanced than what is seen in shows and movies. In fact, defense counsels are an invaluable part of the justice system and the roles they play help ensure the every citizen's rights are protected and upheld. Here are just a few of the most important things a defense counsel does.

Making a case

A defense counsel provides legal representation for a client, meaning that that defense counsel's first job is to know as much about the client's case as is possible. The only way for a defense counsel to successfully defend a client is to gather evidence related to the case and to discuss the circumstances of the case with the client. Attorney-client privilege makes such discussions confidential, meaning clients can share information with their defense counsel without worrying about whether that information will lead to new legal problems.

Bargaining for their clients

Many criminal cases don't actually end up being fought out in the court room. Defense attorneys have a job to weigh how likely a conviction or acquittal is based on the facts of the case. If a conviction seems probable, then it is often in the accused's interest to enter into a plea bargain with prosecutors. The defense counsel negotiates with the prosecutor on the client's behalf. In some cases, for example, the defense may accept a guilty plea on reduced charges in exchange for the prosecutor dropping its more serious charges. In such a case, the client may receive a lighter sentence than if he or she had been convicted of the more serious charges.

Going to trial

Of course, many criminal cases do end up in the courtroom. The defense counsel's role during a trial is multifaceted. A conviction in a criminal case demands guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, a defense counsel must challenge the prosecution's evidence not by trying to prove the defendant's innocent, but merely by showing that reasonable doubt may exist. During the trial, the defense counsel will help with juror selection (if it is a jury trial) and with presenting evidence that casts doubt on the prosecutor's evidence. Because the trial system is adversarial in nature, the defense counsel's main duty is to convince the judge and/or jury that the prosecution's evidence has failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Without defense counsels, those accused of a crime would largely be left to navigate the complex legal system on their own, leading to many opportunities for miscarriages of justice. Defense counsels provide legal representation to defendants, thus ensuring that not only are their rights defended but that the constitutional rights of all citizens are upheld.

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