High-profile Criminal Cases, Different Roles for Defense Counsel - Sparrow Law Firm

It is hard to know which trial to follow: the John Edwards campaign finance trial or the trial of the troubled young man accused of killing a member of North Carolina’s state board of education? Both cases carry some heartache, and both have provided challenges for criminal defense attorneys who must be aggressive client advocates in the face of media and community scorn for the defendants.

Edwards did not walk into that trial as a sympathetic figure. Between his personal life and his political missteps, the former U.S. senator had already tarnished his reputation. The criminal charges may have cost him any shred of credibility, much less dignity, he had left. While the judge told the jury at the beginning of the trial that the issue was campaign finance law, not Edwards’ political work or personal life, the prosecution spent a good deal of time talking about the affair and its effect on his campaign and his family.

Today, the jury enters another day of deliberations. They must decide if the wealthy friends of Edwards gave his aide almost $1 million as a campaign contribution or if the checks were gifts. The matter is fairly dry, really, if you take away all the personal drama. Defense counsel tried to keep the panel focused on the law, but no one will know how effective the argument was until the jury comes back with a verdict.

In a Raleigh courtroom, the jury has heard the prosecution’s case against the 32-year-old man accused of killing the popular educator from Greenville. The details of the murder were gruesome, and the defendant has admitted that he raped and killed the victim. The defense counsel explained to the jury in his opening remarks that the defendant is mentally ill.

As an advocate for the accused, the defendant’s attorney cannot argue that his client didn’t commit the crime; his client has confessed. Instead, his job is to explain that the defendant suffered from a mental illness that, when combined with drugs and alcohol as it was the night of the crime, altered his brain chemistry. In his mental state, the defendant could not have formed the intent to break into his neighbor’s house or to kill the victim.

Again, it is the defense attorney’s job to be an advocate for the defendant. These two high-profile trials provide good examples of the different challenges those attorneys face.


News & Observer, “Closing arguments in Edwards trial set for Thursday,” Anne Blythe, May 17, 2012

News & Observer, “Mother tells of Williford’s struggle with drugs, crime, sex habits,” Josh Shaffer, May 24, 2012