We see a lot of folks wanting to advocate for criminal justice reform, or just for a particular person they feel has been wronged by the criminal justice system. Most people are the “dive right in” type, and don’t realize that they may actually be doing more harm than good. Advocating for someone or something is a lot like remodeling your kitchen. First you need a plan. Then you need the proper tools to do the job. And finally you put plan and tools together to accomplish the goal.
There are things that advocates do that secretly (and sometimes publicly) make defense attorneys cringe. They mean well, they truly do. At best, the advocate spins their wheels and goes nowhere. At worst, their actions can adversely affect the very person they are fighting for. A few examples of this are write in campaigns, requests for presidential pardons, and local press conferences without input from the defense team.
Let’s start with the presidential pardon myth. This is a perfect example of spinning your wheels. Most of the people that ask us about seeking a presidential pardon are referring to state level cases. The President cannot pardon a state level crime. He may only pardon federal level crimes, and if a sitting President is inclined to do so, historically, he will do it on his way out the door. If you are unsure about the jurisdiction of the case you are advocating for, check with the court that the trial was held in. The clerk of court will be able to answer many questions for you about the case you are advocating for.
Letter writing campaigns are the same way. They can be an incredible attention getting tool, if used properly. But it will do you absolutely no good to spend hours and hours writing to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, If you need to be talking to 123 Main Street instead. Say you have 1000 people who feel the same as you do. Have everyone buy 30 postcards each. Every day, each of those 1000 people mail a post card to their state governor. Trust me, receiving 1,000 postcards a day for 30 days will get some attention. If nothing else, it may force them to publicly address the case in question. This is good for pro se cases. It may grab the attention of an attorney that is willing to help out pro bono.
Unless you are accustomed to giving press conferences or writing press releases pertaining to a case, our best advice is don’t. It doesn’t mater if you are best friends with the family, or just a supporter following the facts of a case, as soon as you go public, you open yourself up to attacks from the opposing team. What started as a public statement will many times turn into a public tit for tat. This could garner the wrong type of attention for the case, and may alienate any fence sitters that were undecided about the case. It goes without saying that you should never, ever disclose information that isn’t already public without approval from the defense team.
No matter how you decide to advocate, always state only facts. Never indulge in speculation. We cannot stress how many times we are contacted with the words, “Well this anonymous poster on Reddit said…” Before we present a case, we read trial transcripts, discovery documents, police reports, any press reports we can find and review cited case law. More than once we have been approached with a case that looked good on the surface, only to have it turn out that the claims weren’t supported in the documents.
We don’t only advocate for the innocent, we also advocate for those that are guilty, but have been wronged by the criminal justice system. Being an advocate is not a simple job, and is not for the faint of heart. It is a fulfilling pursuit, though, when done corectly, and with an understanding that there will always be those that don’t agree with you. Maintain your belief in yourself and your job, and rise above it. Make your voices heard.