By Robert Mann

I’m not a lawyer, but this is one thing I know about our criminal justice system: it only works if everyone involved performs his or her job honestly and to the utmost.

In too many criminal cases in Louisiana and across the country, one person often unable to do the job properly is the defense attorney. Maybe she’s a new lawyer handling a death penalty case. Maybe he’s a competent and overworked attorney with an indigent client, accused of rape, who cannot afford to hire a lawyer and wage an aggressive defense.

Maybe she’s politically ambitious, ordered to defend an ostensibly monstrous criminal. She fears that one day an opponent for district attorney or a judgeship might attack her for helping him go free. So, she goes through the motions, weakly defending a client she believes is guilty.

In far too many cases, those defendants are innocent people on an express train to prison, hijacked by a legal system that has little interest in the truth, i.e., ensuring the accused receives a proper defense. Attorneys at public defenders offices do their best, but they are often overwhelmed and underfunded.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Innocence Project New Orleans has sprung quite a few innocent men from prison over the years. Hardworking, underpaid attorneys at similar organizations across the country are doing the same, digging up ignored or suppressed evidence that might free their clients.

Examine the appalling number of people on death row who’ve been exonerated over the years. It’s clear that our nation’s criminal justice system is, itself, a crime.

All of this came to mind recently when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to explain her 1975 defense of a rape suspect in Arkansas. Twenty-seven at the time, Clinton worked at a legal aid clinic where she represented Thomas Alfred Taylor, charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Clinton didn’t want the case, but mounted a vigorous defense, finally negotiating to get Taylor a year in jail and four years of probation.

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