Deconstructing Innocence: Reflections from a Public Defender: Can student attorneys accept the paradigm of guilt and continue zealous representation?


  • Geneva Brown Valparaiso University



I am a true believer. I was a public defender for nine years and represented thousands of guilty defendants without guilt or emotional angst. The public defender credo is to give zealous representation without consideration for the innocence or guilt of the client. As a clinical instructor I must impart ethical and diligent representation to my students.3 I found, however, when discussing cases during our weekly case rounds the paradigm of innocence would inevitably become a question for the student attorney. The students imputed guilt and innocence to be mutually exclusive. 

Imparting the ethical component of criminal defense – to be competent in having legal knowledge, skill and thoroughness of preparation – to the students was a job I was thoroughly prepared to teach. I found, however, that beyond ethical considerations of representing clients, I needed to deconstruct innocence. I wanted to present to students a paradigm that guilt or innocence is secondary to servicing the needs of the client and protecting the client’s rights through the maze of a convoluted and dispassionate court system. Creating a dialogue that evolved from loaded terms such as guilt, truth or innocence and creating representation where the focal point became servicing the needs of the client became my goal. 

This article examines the impact and the importance of the innocence movement and the unintended effects on criminal defense representation. Part I examines the impact of innocence in my juvenile clinic. Part II proceeds to examine the paradigm of the innocence movement and its impact on the criminal justice system. Part III examines the rise of Innocence Projects and the effect on clinical legal education. Part IV deconstructs the importance of innocence and the substantive and procedural problems with innocence. Part V concludes the article with an assertion of the importance of zealous representation regardless of innocence or guilt.