The Attorney

by | Apr 10, 2023

Lawyers are frequently the brunt of jokes, sometimes deservedly so, but as a young boy I learned an important lesson about justice from one who successfully tried a case 131 years ago. 

In 1958 I earned spending money by mowing lawns in my neighborhood. I was eleven years old and charged a buck for most yards. That was good money back in the day, and I was able to mow year-round because I lived in southern California. The work was hard, using a push mower, hand-trimming the yard, and pulling stubborn weeds. 

One of my clients stands out, a 90-year-old neighbor who lived two doors from my home. A retired contractor, he was kind and generous. One day after finishing his yard he invited me into a small office at the back of his house while he retrieved a dollar from the front of the house. 

While waiting, a plaque on the wall caught my attention: a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, dated 1890. When he returned to the office I asked if that were indeed his degree, and he said, “Yes.” He explained that back in the 19th century law students were not required to earn undergraduate degrees for admittance. He had graduated high school, immediately enrolled in law school, and completed his degree at age 21. He practiced criminal law as a defense attorney.

“But,” I said, “I thought you were a contractor.” 

“I was. However, my career as a defense attorney ended after one case, which I won. Then I quit the law.”

“What happened?”

“Well, a young man who was accused of committing a crime hired me to defend him.” My elderly neighbor didn’t mention the specific nature of the crime, only saying it was serious. “I worked hard on the case, determined to defend him well, which I did. When the jury’s verdict came back, they found him not guilty.”

He paused, then said, “I was ecstatic. I had won my first case! My career defending the accused was off to a good start. That is, until my client pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, ‘Thank you for getting me off. I was guilty. I did it.’ And with an arrogant grin he walked out of the court.”

I was only eleven years old, so my neighbor patiently explained that he was defending his client’s rights in court, and it was not his job as a defense attorney to determine his guilt to innocence. But he said that, as a Christian, he was committed to only defending innocent clients. He had to the best of his ability ascertained the facts of the case, believing the accused was telling the truth. But his first client was lying. My neighbor had helped set a criminal free. 

Then he said, “It bothers me to this day. I am a Christian, and I could not live with the guilt of freeing another criminal who likely would be emboldened to commit more crimes.”

Most heroic criminal lawyer stories are about defending people who were accused of or found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project is perhaps the best example of a group of lawyers defending men and women who remain incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. 

There is, however, a complementary truth to defending the innocent that is frequently overlooked. This is what my neighbor taught me. Proverbs 17:15 says, “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent— the LORD detests them both.” God detests both false condemnation of the innocent and freeing evil doers. 

Proverbs 18:5 says, “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the righteous of justice.” These two equally significant truths were illustrated in the life of Christ on his day in court, the day he was crucified. As was the Passover tradition, the people could release one prisoner. False charges had been brought against Jesus, and after examining him, Pilate proclaimed his innocence. “I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him…. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” The people were given a choice: crucify Christ, an innocent man, or Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer. The mob spoke: “Away with this man [Jesus], and release to us Barabbas… Crucify, crucify him!” 

The guilty was acquitted and the innocent condemned. 

Like my 90-year-old neighbor, I am not called to defend the guilty by dismissing wrongdoing and sin, beginning with myself. This would be living a lie. But God does have something better for those who stand guilty before him on judgment day. In First Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul writes, “Do you not know that the unrighteous [wrongdoers] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral… nor thieves… nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”

Because Christ chose to suffer the injustice and indignity of false accusation and crucifixion, he voluntarily took the full brunt of the penalty for our sins. He didn’t excuse our sins, he died for them. God’s innocence project for humanity cost him everything, the eternal love relationship with his Son for three long days. On that day the guilty, Barabbas, was acquitted and Christ the innocent, condemned. And because of that injustice and sacrifice, we have forgiveness, hope, and eternal life. 

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