Everyone Deserves Defense In his decades as a public defender, Peter Keane represented murderers and other criminals as skillfully as he could — even when he knew they were guilty. Keane believes even the worst criminals deserve to have someone on their side.
NPR logo

Everyone Deserves Defense

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95895379/95913034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Everyone Deserves Defense

Everyone Deserves Defense

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95895379/95913034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Some beliefs are hard to practice in real life. Today's This I Believe essay was sent to us by Peter Keane. For 20 years, he was the chief assistant public defender of San Francisco. He represented scores of defendants accused of committing horrifying crimes. Keane is often asked how he can justify defending a murderer or a rapist. He answers with his belief. Here's our series curator, independent producer, Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: Peter Keane told us his daughter convinced him to write this essay. When she was young, she used to attend his trials, and she heard him repeat his belief over and over, a belief she said that should be chiseled on his tombstone. Here's Peter Keane with his essay for This I Believe.

Mr. PETER KEANE (Chief Assistant Public Defender, San Francisco): Would you defend Saddam Hussein? How about Hitler, would you be his lawyer? People ask me this all the time. The names of the bad guys change, but the question is always the same. My answer is always, yes, I would. It has to be, because I believe everyone, no matter what they've done, deserves to have one person on their side. I've spent most of my life as a criminal defense attorney. For 20 years, I was a public defender.

My clients committed every kind of terrible crime imaginable. I defended each one of them with every ounce of skill, creativity, and tenacity that I had. In the end, most of my clients were convicted of something. For that is simply the nature of the criminal-justice system. It's an uphill struggle for anyone who is charged with a crime.

All the power and resources of the state, the police, and the prosecution are hurled against that one person. And the only protection to all of that is one lawyer. But despite the odds, there were a number of people whom I helped to go free. Sometimes I convinced the judge to throw out a case because of a legal defect. Sometimes I convinced a jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

Many of those people I helped to acquit were guilty. Some went on to commit other crimes. One client found not guilty of murder killed another person shortly after his release. I defended him again the second time around. He was convicted, but not because I defended him with any less vigor.

How do I feel about the 30 years I did this work? I'm proud of it. Did my conscience wrestle with me in a moral dialogue? Sure. In courtrooms, I confronted victims whose lives, bodies, and often whose very souls had been forever shattered. Sometimes, in their eyes, I saw members of my own family. Sometimes, I saw myself.

The battle within me was fierce, and it took its toll in sleepless night, anxiety, and depression. But in the end, my belief in what I was doing prevailed over my misgivings. I know that most people have great difficulty understanding this. Indeed, many are horrified by it.

But reflect for a moment. There is one key mechanism in our society that protects and maintains all of our freedoms. It is that we go by the rule that whenever someone does something that we condemn, no matter what it is, he still gets one person to speak up for him.

Take away this protection and all of our other democratic rights, which are so carefully woven into the constitutional design of our republic, become meaningless. Without resistance from lawyers who represent people being prosecuted, all freedom is ultimately lost, because it is the natural, human tendency of those who wield power, to abuse those without it. I'm a law professor now.

I teach my students to be proud to defend anyone, no matter what they may have done. I want them to stand up for the world's Saddam Husseins and Osama Bin Ladens, for America's accused rapists, and murderers, and thieves. I want my students to fight for them, ethically, but with all the fierce determination, talent, and skill that they have. One person on your side, no matter what you've done, that's what keeps us a free people. That's what I believe.

ALLISON: Peter Keane with his essay for This I Believe. Keane says that criminal defense attorneys must find a way to believe in their work, or else the conflict and stress will overcome them, something he's seen too often. At npr.org/thisibelieve, you'll find information on submitting your own essay. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.