As criminal defense attorney’s, we frequently hear the same question: “How can you defend those guilty people?” Erroneously presupposed by those who ask this questions is that all the people that we represent are all guilty. We have different responses when asked this question depending on who asks and how they ask it. Sometimes, I’ll remind and/or inform those people about the instances over the past several years, about which I’ve read where innocent people in the United States have been falsely accused of crimes. Their nightmares serve as, among many other things, reminders of the importance of our role as criminal defense lawyers. I try to share true stories to those who inquire to remind them that people, just like you and I, can have their liberty stripped at any moment even though they have done nothing wrong.
I make sure to remind them about what happened to Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts. Thirty six years ago, two gas station attendants were murdered in a segregated town in the Florida Panhandle. Lee and Pitts were arrested and later stood trial for the murders. Feelings against them ran high during their trials. The crucial piece of evidence was that one of their friends had argued with a gas station attendant about using the whites-only bathroom. The all-white jury sent the two black men to Death Row. Their conviction was based largely on the testimony of a witness who was threatened by interrogators and “hypnotized” by prosecutors. They spent 12 years in prison, nine of them on Death Row, before being freed. Another man confessed to the killings.
More recently, there was the arrest in Tampa, Florida of Johnny Golden, who was charged with bank robbery. Even though he had a pay slip showing he had worked for a labor pool in North Carolina the day Tampa police accused him of robbing the bank and had his supervisor and four other people vouch for his alibi, he still was held by authorities who were certain that they had the right man. On December 8, 1997, the day Golden’s trial was to start, the primary witness, a bank teller who was robbed, came into court and took a look at Golden and said that he wasn’t the robber. Prosecutors dropped the charges. Golden spent six months in jail, losing his truck and his home. He also lost spending precious time with his wife and infant son who was 3 months old when he was arrested.
Another case of innocence occurred in Orlando in late 1998. Kenneth Taylor was about to take his wife and 2 year old daughter to breakfast when he was arrested by hooded officers from the fugitive squad who surrounded Taylor with their guns drawn. With his family and neighbors stunned and watching in disbelief, he was handcuffed and placed into a sheriff’s van. Four weeks later, after 12 days in jail and 16 days confined to his home with an electronic monitoring bracelet, the state attorney’s office announced to the court that they had no case against Taylor. All along Taylor claimed he was innocent of raping the female victim. Police and prosecutors were not persuaded even though the victim had contracted gonorrhea during the assault and tests showed that Taylor didn’t have it. Also, Taylor had an alibi proving that he was working 500 miles away at the time of the crime.
These are just several examples of cases where injustices have taken place over the past several years. Thankfully, they happen infrequently. Most of the time, law enforcement officers and prosecutors work diligently to safeguard against horror stories like the above mentioned. However, they do take place. That’s why our role in the process is so critical. It’s so important that we continue to fight zealously on every case. Let’s continue to remind the countless people who inquire how we can “do what we do” that they’re “not” all guilty.