A criminal defense investigator makes the case for her important role in the justice system.
Prosecutors like to say they are “doing God’s work” by representing the interests of victims. An ex-prosecutor I interviewed for my book, Making a Case for Innocence, used those words when I asked her why some prosecutors are willing to lie or hide evidence to get a conviction, and why some prosecutors seem more focused on winning cases than getting to the truth.
“At the end of the day, we want justice,” she said.
A vague answer, at best.
Still, it might explain the tunnel vision I see infecting some prosecutors: Too many of them seem so driven in their mission to “put the bad guys away,” that they become overconfident in their rightness and are tempted to bend the rules—all to ensure a “mission accomplished.”
I admit, it rubs me the wrong way when a government employee suggests that justice is only served by a conviction. Putting “bad guys” away is all well and fine, but some prosecutors seem to forget that not everyone sitting at the defendant’s table is a “bad guy.”
To a degree, it’s a problem of philosophy: Many prosecutors are in the business of pursuing guilt, so they see it everywhere. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And many police departments view themselves more as law enforcers than as society’s protectors, or as crime preventers.
Meanwhile, many criminal defense attorneys and investigators feel as strongly as prosecutors do that they are doing “God’s work.” By protecting the rights of people charged with crimes, they counterbalance the power of prosecutors and police, and thus, make our system fairer for all.
We don’t know the exact number of innocent people currently incarcerated, but we can estimate based on exoneration rates:
The United States inmate population fluctuates around two million. Using these numbers, as many as 100,000 innocent people could currently be wrongly imprisoned. Other reports indicate that “in nearly 11% of the nation’s 349 DNA exoneration cases, innocent people entered guilty pleas.” (source: The Innocence Project)
So there’s little doubt that tens of thousands of convicted “criminals” are likely innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted (or incentivized to plead guilty). This is a staggering and shameful number. Even more disturbing is the idea that some of these prisoners are undoubtedly on death row.
That’s why I find it so perplexing that defense teams are considered by many to be working for the “dark side.” Why? Because a criminal went free here and there? Perhaps prosecution was not as passionate about fighting those cases as was defense.
We are on the dark side, you say? I think not.
Of course, I know firsthand that not every defense professional is a hero, or is fueled by a passion for saving lives. But imagine a criminal justice system where no one stands for the rights of the accused, and the State is free to exercise its authority as it sees fit, with no check to its power.
Criminal defense investigators play an extremely important role on any defense team—out in the field uncovering the facts that can win cases, filling in the details of a picture the defense attorney will paint for the jury. Attorneys can rarely defend anyone on argument alone; they also need supporting evidence gathered by a diligent investigator.
I’d argue that, given how our adversarial system works, we are—all of us (defense and prosecution and judge and jury)—engaged in some iteration of “God’s work.” Too often, defense and prosecution are conditioned to view each other as opponents. But I don’t see us as adversaries. We each play important roles in a system that cannot function as intended without both perspectives.
What if we were to look at things a little bit differently? What if defense and prosecution considered each other as collaborators, working from opposite ends of a case and moving toward the truth? In a perfect system, our goals should be the same: to ensure guilty people are convicted and innocent people are not, and that such is accomplished within the framework of our U.S. Constitution.
That perfect system does not yet exist. But honing and improving the one we have is a worthy goal. Isn’t that why all of us started doing this work? Let’s not lose sight of the greater meaning of what we do.
For anyone to consider defense professionals as working for the “dark side” is short-sighted at best, for it fails to acknowledge the defense’s essential part in working toward a justice system that’s fair to all and biased toward none.
A passionate criminal defense investigator can make the difference in winning or losing a case for an innocent client.
Dig deep for the truth. Know that you are preserving freedom and saving lives. This is God’s work.
April Higuera is a criminal defense investigator, with PI licenses in Nevada and California. She has worked many complex cases on county, state, and federal levels; conducting fieldwork investigations and offering consultation nationwide. Her book, Making the Case for Innocence, was published in September, 2016.