Criminal defense attorneys, particularly those appointed by the court to represent indigent clients, frequently deal with a “how can you defend those people?” kind of revulsion from the public. It’s no wonder. Cases they handle may involve violent crimes with details so grisly or shocking that some people are ready to permanently lock up a suspect from the moment one is arrested.
That’s why those same people should recognize the critical role that defense attorneys play in ensuring that the rule of law — not anger, fear or a desire for revenge — drives the justice system forward.
Stuart Sugarman, a Portland attorney originally from New York, was one of those who advocated for the constitutional protections of the accused. The tall, bearded lawyer, who died this week from diabetes-related complications, took on those how-can-you cases year after year.
He represented one of the defendants accused with others in her “street family” of beating, stabbing and setting on fire a young woman in 2003. He also defended a meth-intoxicated driver who plowed into the car of a pregnant woman, leaving her severely brain damaged and confined to a bed. Those were only two cases in a decades-long career in which he stood up for those accused of rape, assault, kidnapping and attempted murder — never allowing public opinion or an assumption of guilt to short-circuit his client’s right to due process and a fair trial.
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Like many others in the profession, Sugarman wasn’t motivated by a belief that he could help his client beat the system in some way, said Russell Barnett III, a friend of Sugarman’s and a longtime criminal defense attorney. Rather, the drive comes from a desire to ensure that the enormous power wielded by prosecutors and the government does not go unchecked.
“Sometimes, the (government’s) motivation to do right kind of takes precedence over civil liberties,” he said. “Everybody’s real fond of the First and Second Amendments. But people tend to skip over the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth. We look out for those.”
Sugarman was also driven by the understanding that those who are poor and least able to afford a lawyer need the most help in fighting off unjust prosecution, said his law partner, Ernest Warren Jr.
Sugarman’s advocacy didn’t stop there. He was especially passionate about defending the rights of protesters to demonstrate, often taking cases for free and pressuring other attorneys to do the same, Warren said.
Barnett recalled one such instance in which Sugarman called on him and two other lawyer friends to represent three women who had chained themselves to a rail outside a government building in Molalla. Barnett was reluctant to take the case, he said. But then Sugarman asked him, “Well, how can you be too busy for the best of what we do?”
It worked, and Barnett took the case. When he and the other lawyers showed up to court, they were able to resolve the case quickly.
Sugarman’s death, which is being mourned by colleagues throughout the justice system, is a deep loss to the bar, which will miss his principled stands and devotion to protecting defendants’ constitutional provisions. But his work should serve as a reminder to all those who would understandably recoil from those accused of horrific acts.
How can they defend those people?
If we truly value justice, how can they not?
– The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board