January 17, 2020

Wrongful convictions; eyewitness error; DNA exonerations.  These are the exciting and popularly-acclaimed aspects of criminal defense – preventing or correcting the error of someone being wrongfully accused or imprisoned for an act that never occurred or was committed by someone else.  But focusing on those cases ignores the primary role invoked by the Sixth Amendment right to counsel – representing those who indeed did something wrong if not heinous.  This is the bulk of what those who represent indigents do – help the guilty.

What drive people to that role, and what makes it acceptable if not indeed noble, can be many reasons – the gladiator/warrior enjoyment of the adversary system, a social conscience crying out to aid those who are poor and often never had a chance, a sense that the ‘system’ needs balance and won’t otherwise work, and a David versus Goliath sense of the world – arrayed against this defendant are the prosecution, the police force, at times the judge, and an internalized set of biases that skew judgment.

GUILTY PEOPLE is the story of representing indigent defendants who most likely did break the law.  In the hands of Abbe Smith – a former Public Defender, a scholar of legal ethics, a fighter for criminal justice for decades, a feminist, director of Georgetown’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, and a sometimes cartoonist of great wit and skill – it is a multitude of stories:

  • The lives of her individual clients over decades of representation, shown to be multi-dimensional and as human (and sometimes as humane) as any of us;
  • How one decision, or one fraught situation, can propel someone otherwise well-intentioned into the criminal prosecution system;
  • A series of insights into trial, sentencing and client-relations strategies;
  • An intimate telling of the emotional highs, lows and conflicts of such work;
  • The contextualizing of her work in the world of criminal law, where statistics (e.g. the low rate of recidivism for certain crimes as contrasted with the punishments imposed) often stand in stark contrast to policy and sentiment; and
  • Her inimitable cartoons, themselves as provocative as the written content of the book. Here is one such example:


GUILTY PEOPLE’s five chapters span much of criminal law – “Petty Criminals,” “Ordinary Felons,” “Rapists,” “Murderers,” and ‘Guilty Clients, Guilty Lawyers,” the last a discourse on what motivates those who represent the likely/clearly guilty.  In it, Smith reveals herself as well, as a “very happy criminal defense lawyer[]” but also acknowledge that a sense of guilt can hit even her, at least for “getting it wrong and losing my cool.”

GUILTY PEOPLE is book written with the ease a great storyteller has.  Why read it?  For those who do the work of indigent defense, as a way to step back and both understand and appreciate what they do and who they are doing it for as well as a reminder that they are not in this alone?  For anyone else, to have an understanding of what the words “criminal justice” mean and to recognize the humanity in those being judged and those who speak for them.  And for students of criminal justice and criminal law, GUILTY PEOPLE lays bare the dilemmas, indignities, responsibilities, woes and satisfaction of being a part of the criminal law process.


GUILTY PEOPLE by Abbe Smith, Rutgers University Press (January 17, 2020)