Many people who are charged with committing a crime worry that, if they admit guilt or involvement to their attorney, their attorney will abandon them, sabotage their defense, or just not try very hard to get an acquittal. However, private criminal defense attorneys and public defenders are deeply committed to ensuring that they get the best possible outcomes for their clients. The focus of a criminal trial is whether the prosecutor can prove that you committed the charged crime. Your defense attorney's job is to fight for you, protect your constitutional rights, and try to show that the prosecutor's proof is lacking—no matter what your attorney's personal view of the facts may be.
So, if you did commit a crime, should you admit it to your attorney?
Most criminal defense attorneys want their clients to be honest with them about the facts of the case. A defense attorney will not offer lesser representation simply because he or she believes the client has committed a crime. The attorney's concern is whether there is sufficient evidence to prove that you committed the crime. It is not the role of the criminal defense attorney to decide if the client is innocent or guilty. That is for the jury or judge. The attorney's job is to be the client's advocate and make sure that the client gets a fair trial.
Different attorneys have different opinions on what they want their clients to tell them about the case. Most (but not all) criminal defense attorneys want their clients to tell them everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—because an attorney cannot defend against what he or she does not know.
Some attorneys, however, do not want to talk to their clients about the case because they do not want to be limited in pursuing a defense. These attorneys will tell you that they do not want to know everything—they want to know only what the prosecution knows.
Some attorneys say that they just assume that all their clients are guilty because it helps them critically evaluate the case and decide how to present the best defense. If they allow themselves to believe that their client is innocent, they might miss out on a more compelling argument. No matter what, with a few exceptions, attorneys are required to maintain lawyer-client confidentiality.
The American justice system requires that the prosecutor prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a high standard, but our legal system is founded on the principle that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to wrongly convict an innocent person.
Criminal defense attorneys are ethically required to zealously represent their clients, no matter what their personal opinion of the case may be. This means that criminal defense attorneys are required to do their best to advocate for their clients, even if the attorney believes the client is guilty. For more information, see Representing a Client Whom the Lawyer Thinks Is Guilty.
Attorneys cannot, however, present evidence or arguments that they know to be false. (American Bar Association, ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rules 3.1, 3.3.) Does this mean that if a client admits guilt to his or her attorney, the attorney cannot enter a not guilty plea or zealously represent the client? No. In such cases, the attorney can focus on the holes in the prosecutor's evidence or on other legal issues (such as whether a search was appropriate under the Fourth Amendment, or whether scientific tests were performed according to the appropriate standards) that do not relate to whether the client committed the crime or not.
For example, suppose you are accused of possession of marijuana at a concert. You admit to your attorney that you were smoking a joint with a group of friends. Your attorney cannot argue that you did not commit the crime. But, the attorney can argue that the prosecutor has not proved that you committed the crime. Your attorney could present evidence that the officer was standing more than 100 feet away and could not clearly observe who was smoking and that the police department was under a lot of pressure to make drug arrests in order to shut down the concert.
Whether you believe you are guilty or not, you are entitled to a fair trial and an attorney who will represent your interests. If you are charged with or accused of committing a crime, talk to a lawyer. Your lawyer is there to fight for you. You and your attorney can decide how much information to share about the facts underlying the case.