Defending A Guilty Person In 2022

Last Modified: January 22, 2024

Being accused of a crime is much different than being convicted of a crime. Our attorneys help in the process of differentiating between the two outcomes.

Can a Lawyer Defend Someone They Know is Guilty?

Probably every defense lawyer has been asked at least once, “Can a lawyer defend someone they know is guilty?” This is an excellent question and one that the legal profession has grappled with for years.

The answer to this question is YES. However, there are rules that a lawyer must follow when defending a guilty person.

Read further to learn more, or call our law firm today to discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The starting point for explaining why a lawyer can defend someone they know is guilty is a review of one of our basic principles of justice—everyone is presumed to be innocent until the moment they are pronounced guilty by a court.

When a person walks into a lawyer’s office or calls from jail to ask for help, that person, at that time, is an innocent person in the eyes of the law. For many, this might seem a bit hard to swallow, but let us consider the alternative.

If we were to expect lawyers to decline representation to anyone that they believe to be guilty, wouldn’t we be asking lawyers to carry out judgment on people without even hearing the evidence or interviewing witnesses? How would you like to be judged simply by a lawyer’s gut instincts?

A defense lawyer’s job is to bring people before the courts, argue their best in that person’s defense, and trust the judge and the jury to decide on guilt or innocence.

Doing Something Wrong vs. Committing a Crime Just because a person has been accused of a crime, or says they have committed a crime, doesn’t necessarily mean that they have. For a person to be found guilty of a crime, the state must first prove every element of the criminal offense by evidence.

Sometimes a person may believe that they are guilty of committing a crime when they actually haven’t, and sometimes a person may be convinced they have done the right thing when they have actually committed a crime. It is the lawyer’s job to evaluate the facts to determine if, in fact, the person has committed a crime or simply done something wrong.

For example, let’s say a defendant was approached in the street by someone acting very aggressively and waving their fists. The defendant became very scared and punched the scary person out first.

In this case, the defendant may be convinced that he or she has committed an assault. However, a good defense lawyer would first determine whether the defendant’s actions might be excused as self-defense.

Can a Lawyer Advise a Client to Plead Guilty?

Yes. If it is really clear that a defendant has committed a crime (either because the defendant admitted to the crime or because the prosecution’s case is just that strong), then any decent lawyer will advise the defendant of the substantial advantages that come from pleading guilty.

A guilty client who pleads guilty, in particular one who pleads guilty early and assists law enforcement, can look forward to a much lesser sentence than a client who pleads not guilty but gets convicted anyway. This is why the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by way of a guilty plea.

These guilty pleas are often the result of a defense lawyer helping his or her client to see that pleading guilty will provide them with the best outcome. So, most frequently, when a defense lawyer has a guilty client, the client will plead guilty, and the lawyer will focus on getting the client a fair sentence.

How Does a Lawyer Represent Someone They Know is Guilty?

When a lawyer represents someone they know is guilty, they must do so knowing that their highest duty is not to the client but instead to the court. This means, amongst other things, that when representing the defendant, the lawyer must not knowingly lie to the court.

Moreover, if a lawyer knows that the defendant (or a witness that they have brought before the court) has been lying to the court, they must go to that person and demand that the truth be told. If that person refuses, the lawyer should withdraw from the case.

It is absolutely vital for judges to know that they are not being lied to by other officers of the court. Therefore, if a lawyer has actual knowledge of their client’s guilt, the lawyer cannot argue against the client’s guilt because that would almost certainly involve lying to the court.

Instead, the lawyer should first advise the client of the advantages of pleading guilty, as mentioned above. If the client refuses, then the lawyer should do everything they can to force the prosecution to prove its case and to mitigate the consequences of a conviction. However, the lawyer may not, under any circumstances, lie to the court to defend a guilty client.

How Does a Lawyer Defend a Guilty Client Who Wants to Plead Not Guilty?

If a client that a lawyer knows is guilty wants to plead not guilty, they have the right to do so. But because the lawyer cannot knowingly lie to the court, there are essentially only two paths he or she can take in the client’s defense:

  1. Focus On Forcing The State To Prove Its Case The lawyer can refrain from arguing against the defendant’s guilt while still challenging the prosecution to prove its case. This usually means that the lawyer will ensure that the defendant, who has the right to remain silent, does so.

Furthermore, rather than bringing any evidence before the court, the defense lawyer will focus on challenging the evidence the prosecution brings. For example, if the prosecution presents video footage, which it claims is of the defendant, the lawyer might challenge that footage and demand that the prosecution prove the footage is of the defendant.

  1. Assert An Affirmative Defense on The Defendant’s Behalf

The second path involves the defense lawyer asserting a positive defense on behalf of the defendant. An affirmative defense is an allowable legal excuse that, if proven true, justifies or excuses a criminal offense or negates the defendant’s criminal liability.

Self-defense is a classic version of an affirmative defense. In certain circumstances, the law allows a person to break the law to defend themselves or others from harm.

An affirmative defense almost always requires the defendant to forgo their right to remain silent since it typically requires the defendant to tell their own version of what happened.


The bottom line is that a lawyer can defend someone they know is guilty. Moreover, a lawyer who gives their best effort to advise a guilty client is actually assisting the court to do justice.

Defense lawyers provide guilty defendants with sensible, professional advice and ensure that their cases are brought before the court properly so that the judge and the jury can see all the facts, hear all the arguments, and then do justice.

Consult with an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you or someone you care about has been charged with a crime, you are still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. You also have the right to be represented by a competent attorney at each stage of the criminal process.

Call our law firm today to consult with a skilled criminal defense attorney who can preserve your innocence and protect your rights. Your future and your freedom may be at stake.

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