NORMAN — The concept of “equality for all,” celebrated by Law Day 2013, is exemplified daily by attorneys working with the Norman-based Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
When judges determine that a citizen accused of a crime and facing loss of liberty cannot afford to hire a lawyer to help them, this state agency provides counsel. Attorneys employed by the system and private attorneys working with the agency strive to ensure equal justice for these accused citizens.
These “equalizers” are often asked to take on unpopular and unenviable cases. In high-profile and ugly crimes, those representing the accused are sometimes portrayed as “necessary evils,” with not much understanding for the “necessary.”
In the heat of anger and fear over a horrific crime, it can be hard to recall the founding principles of due process. It is the defense attorney who steps into the gap and has the duty of “equalizing” the government’s accusation by acting to protect the accused citizen’s rights.
In a case later dramatized in book and movie form as “Gideon’s Trumpet,” the Supreme Court described lawyers in the criminal justice system as “necessities, not luxuries.” This reality was premised on the foundation that just as “lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest” and that few accused citizens “fail to hire the best lawyers they can get,” those without resources also need the help of lawyers when faced with government accusation.
The Supreme Court’s decision 50 years ago in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright recognized the “great emphasis” our founders placed on safeguards “designed to ensure fair trials before impartial tribunals.” The Supreme Court understood that “(t)his noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”