July 4th

flags1This Fourth of July members of the Houston criminal defense bar met on the steps of the Harris County courthouse to read the American Declaration of Independence. The tradition began seven years ago. I wasn’t there, but I imagine that it consisted of a few lawyers reading the document to passers by. Over the years, the tradition has grown. And this year, for the first time in history, the reading took place in every county in the state of Texas. That’s an incredible accomplishment.

What struck me fresh this year in the Declaration were a pair of grievances against the British king:

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States

and

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.

Put succinctly, the government was acquitting its own agents in kangaroo courts when they killed innocent citizens. And on the other hand, when citizens were accused of crimes, they were getting steamrolled in court—not afforded rights we consider basic, like the right to a trial by a jury of our peers.

The other day a close friend of mine had his sister in town for the holiday. When she found out that I was a criminal defense lawyer, she had a lot of questions. Mostly, she had the same questions most people have when they find out what I do for a living. Basically the questions go like this: “When you know they’re guilty, do you defend them anyway? How do you do that?” Underneath the questions, I often feel a subtext of “How do you sleep at night?” or “How do you live with yourself.” This particular person asked, “Do you pray before you take cases?” What I heard was, “Do you have a soul?”

The truth is I do pray. A lot. I pray for my clients. I pray with my clients. I pray for the strength, wisdom, and perseverance to carry on in this lonely profession.

See, my friend’s sister and these lines in the Declaration remind me of one of the great founding father’s of our Republic: John Adams. Before he was president—before he signed the Declaration—Adams found himself defending a group of British soldiers who had killed five innocent Americans in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Understandably, he took a lot of heat for it. The whole undertaking was incredibly isolating for him.

But what Adams, the prosecution, and the judge demonstrated in the trial of those British soldiers was uniquely American. Even as they had been oppressed, beat down, and murdered by thugs wielding weapons under the authority of government—even as they had repeatedly seen staged trials leading to acquittals of government murderers—they afforded the accused fair trials. They risked that the system might get it wrong. Perhaps the guilty may go free in protecting the rights of the innocent. Adams and the colonists understood what we often forget: protecting the rights of the guilty protects us all.

Adams put it like this: “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

So this Fourth of July, if you get a chance, please consider taking a look at Declaration of Independence. It is every bit as relevant today as it was 240 years ago. The rights our founders left us are our inheritance, and we owe them our gratitude. Happy Fourth!