Can a Good Lawyer be a Good Person? | Ronald Sullivan | TEDxBeaconStreet

Can a Good Lawyer be a Good Person? | Ronald Sullivan | TEDxBeaconStreet

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Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Marta Palacio So, when I was a law student, I read an article by a law professor
who’s now a friend and colleague. But the very first line of that article
has stuck with me for 25 years. It’s haunted me, in fact. The first line is this, “Can a good lawyer be a good person?” (Laughter) I see everybody laughs,
because you’re thinking, “No.” (Laughter) “A good lawyer cannot be a good person.” Most of the time, this question
comes from this notion of, how can you defend the guilty? How can you defend someone whom you think
has committed some sort of crime? I’m going to tell you
about one of my clients. I had a client charged
with a serious assault. I should say, before I became
a law professor, I was a public defender in Washington, DC. So many years ago, I defended
a man who’s accused of an assault and the major witness
against him was a guy – I’ll call him John –
I won’t give his real name. John was a heroin addict. It was a very, very, very close case. In the end, I gave a closing that had something to do
with reasonable doubt. So, in the District of Columbia,
the definition of reasonable doubt is this, “A reasonable doubt is a doubt
upon which you can base a reason.” It’s the sort or doubt
– they’re pretty slick there – (Laughter) reasonable doubt is a doubt
upon which you can base a reason. It is the sort of doubt
that makes you pause or hesitate in the greater,
more meaningful aspects of life. The sort of doubt
that makes you pause or hesitate in the greater, more meaningful
aspects of life. So, I said something like this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, imagine that you’re having breakfast. You’re getting your kids ready for school,
you pour some Cheerios and some milk, and little Johnny and little Sally
are eating away. It’s like a normal day. Then you take them by the hand,
you walk them to the bus stop like you do any other day. You walk outside,
but something’s different. The bus is not there. The normal bus driver is never late. You wait, you wait, you wait. Then all of a sudden you hear
the sound of tires screaming around the corner, knocking over your neighbors’ garbage can, and it comes up to a screeching halt
in front of your house. They open the door,
and it’s not the normal bus driver. It’s John, the heroin addict. You look in and you say,
“Where’s the bus driver?”, and the new guy says,
he starts scratching, and he says, “I don’t know, I don’t know,
he’s off today, I’m driving the bus.” And you look in, and you say, “Sir, there’s a hypodermic needle
in your arm, are you diabetic?” And he says, “No, no, I’m not diabetic, I’m on heroin, but, but, but you can trust me.” Ladies and gentlemen, if you pause of hesitate in putting your child on that bus, you have reasonable doubt, and you have a solemn duty to acquit.” Now, I’ll tell you a little secret, trial lawyers never tell stories
unless the result is that they won. (Laughter) So we got an acquittal in that case. As the introducer said,
over the course of my academic career, I’ve worked to free over 6,000
wrongly incarcerated people. I worked… (Applause) I worked as a young lawyer
very, very hard on that case. I thought about how to make the jury
understand and remembered from my law school training
something Oliver Wendell Holmes said. He said that the life
of the law is not logic. It’s experience. “The life of the law
is not logic, it’s experience.” That means that the language of the law is all about people
and our common experiences, and I wanted the jury to understand why they had to realize
that there was reasonable doubt, and I did this because I was 100% sure that my client was absolutely
beyond the reasonable doubt guilty. It’s what public defenders do. Often times, they defend people who may be factually
culpable of the crime. I was pretty sure that that was the case, and that’s why I didn’t give
names earlier. But why do we do this? Why do we do this? I’m thinking about a young man
named Willie Stuckey. It’s a case I worked on two years ago. A kid who was arrested
when he was 15 years old. 29 years later, he and his co-defendant
were exonerated. That was in New York,
they arrested the wrong boys, they spent a long time,
just shy of 30 years in jail. And finally, they were exonerated. Willie Stuckey never got to set foot
though, outside of the jail prison. He never did because he died in prison. He died at 34 of a heart attack. He was an actually innocent client. In order for the rights of all of us, the rights of the guilty
and the innocent alike to be protected, we have to live in a system where we vigorously,
vigorously defend the guilty. A lot of things happened wrong
in Willie Stuckey’s case. Prosecution didn’t turn over
critical evidence. But one of the things
I want to focus on now is his lawyer did absolutely nothing. We have to insist that we have a system where the lawyers,
who get a bad rep, I recognize, where the lawyers do everything they can within the bounds
and the contours of the law to ensure each and every person,
regardless of means, regardless of whether they think
they’re innocent of guilty, they have to do everything
within their power to ensure that they have a fair trial. You see, when I think of Willie Stuckey and the 21 other people
whom we exonerated in New York, who were actually guilty, it reminds me that justice doesn’t just
fall out of the sky, you know. “Justice. Oh, there it is,”
and it happens. Justice doesn’t fall out of the sky, Martin Luther King once said
that the moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. I want to amend that a bit and say that the moral arc history
is long, if people bend it toward justice, because justice is a thing
that does not just fall out of the sky; justice is something that people do. Justice is something
that people make happen. So, can a good lawyer be a good person? A good lawyer can
and must be a good person because lawyers have to fight for justice, and fighting for justice
sometimes even means fighting for those people
whom they think are guilty. Otherwise, there is nothing
that would stop more and more innocent people
being wrongly convicted. I want to end with this. We had a case in New York, where we looked at what seemed to be
an open-and-shut case. There was a witness who testified that, “I saw the defendant and his group inside the vestibule
of an apartment building. I saw the defendant pull a gun out,
point-blank range, bum! And shoot the deceased. The deceased stumbled,
walked down the stairs, fell down on his back, and regrettably, died.” The police got there,
there was a big hole in the chest. They took the interviews,
they arrested the person accused, that person spent two decades in jail. They asked my to review the case. And it didn’t take
an Harvard Law Professor to figure out that there was a big problem. All I did was look at the autopsy. I looked at the autopsy report; you know the big hole that seemed
consistent with somebody shooting them? That was an exit wound, my friends. There was a small hole in the back, that was an entry wound. There was also a bullet hole in the ankle. We took it to the medical examiner
for the State of New York. They said two things, he said two things. One, that the person
would have died instantly. Two, the ankle was broken, nobody was walking down any stairs
and stumbling out like in a movie. It just wasn’t true,
the way that it was described. Then I looked at the pictures. Again, it doesn’t take
a Harvard Law Professor to do this, there was no blood inside the building. The person wasn’t shot
inside that building. So after more investigation,
we figured out that the complaining witness
was not being truthful. And after about 20 years,
we exonerated that poor person. But I bet you this, I don’t know this for sure, but I bet you that individual’s lawyer probably thought
it was an open-and-shut case. He probably said, “This is a bad guy, this is a guilty guy. I’m going to just try this case
with one hand tied behind my back.” An innocent soul spent two decades in jail because lawyers didn’t care enough. So I leave you with this, my friends. The law is not something that exists in the abstract. It is not some esoteric set of rules. The law is something
that you and I create. The law is something
that you and I must make real in the lived experiences of our fellows. Then, and only then, can we have
something that approximates justice. Thank you very much. (Applause)

23 thoughts on “Can a Good Lawyer be a Good Person? | Ronald Sullivan | TEDxBeaconStreet

  • Mickey Robertson Post author

    Mr. Sullivan is by far my favorite attorney. He is wise beyond words. His ability to deliver facts about the law reminds me of Perry Mason. I love his approach.

  • DodoGalore1 Post author

    Thank you for the timely reminder for all lawyers out there!!

  • Mike Watkins Jr Post author

    Was wondering how I could be Christian and be a lawyer… this video answered my question

  • Neil Clayman Post author

    Mr. Sullivan seems to be not only one of the smart ones, but one of the good ones, as well. I especially liked his ending on why it is so important for Lawyers to care.

  • Learn Legal English Post author

    Great film. We frequently recommend this talk to students.

  • Callum Webb Post author

    Another Lawyer who wants to keep as many child rapists and murderers on the streets as possible

  • SUNSEEKER Post author

    I do like this lawyer-very admirable. He uses EVERYTHING in his power (and knowledge) to defend his client. (He worked with Jose Baez on the Aaron Hernandez trial. )

  • therapists sha Post author

    The law system is a big fraud with it's own language that normal people do not understand. I rest my case!!.

  • tricky205 Post author

    This gentleman graduated from Harvard Law School and went to work as a public defender earning peanuts. Much respect.

  • Easement Dispute Post author

    My Personal experience is that the Bar Association particularly the disciplinary counsel needs to take people's grievances more seriously to weed out the bad lawyers who are ruining well basically making it so that the stereotypes about lawyers are true the good lawyers need to get war on board with getting the bad lawyers out of the justice system or at least have stricter and stronger repercussions for breaking the rules of conduct because what I have seen is inmates running the institution or children running the candy store

  • Geetha Devi Post author

    Better Call Sullivan!!

  • kofi Appiah-Menka Post author


  • IWTD Post author

    The media really like to hate on the defendants

  • JSuavinson Post author

    This video addresses the question that I have toiled over. Thanks Ronald.

  • ᄋ: Post author

    And it was 4:06 when the tears began to roll

  • Luat su Thu Doan Post author

    I argree that topic

  • AKUJU Post author

    Can't believe students kicked him out for representing Harvey Weinstein. Lol

  • JITU BURMAN Post author

    It is law that starts with the saying no one should be punished unheard…It is germane of litigation, and a lawyer is thus engaged..those who pay the lawyer works for them whatever ethics lies in the core of matter before court..

  • Tacheles Reden Post author

    And now they don't want this man any longer at the Harvard University?

  • Joseph Holdman Post author

    To be a lawyer you have to die for your country first! Stay loyal to your own!

  • Joseph Holdman Post author

    Never take a guilty case.

  • Nick W Post author

    Harvard and those protesting students should be ashamed of themselves. Seems like an establishment like that should set standards of higher and nuanced thinking.

  • Lytonya Post author

    I understand it now.

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