• Joseph Horrigan

Why would you ever decide to be a criminal lawyer?


For me, the driving force behind becoming a criminal lawyer all started when I watched a Fifth Estate documentary; Steven Truscott - His Word against History. For anyone who has not seen this documentary, I highly recommend watching it (It can be found here https://www.cbc.ca/fifth/m_episodes/40-years-of-the-fifth-estate/steven-truscott-his-word-against-history ). The documentary takes a look at one of Canada’s worst miscarriages of justice. At 14 years old, Steven was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging (many Canadians are unaware that it was not until 1976 that capital punishment was abolished as a sentence for murder in Canada, and that capital punishment was still an available punishment for a number of offences under the National Defence Act until 1998).


Watching this documentary made me begin to research other wrongful convictions that have occurred in Canada and the United States. Much to my disappointment, I quickly realized that there was a great number of these terrible miscarriages of justice. The one overarching similarity that seemed present in all of these tragic cases was that members involved in the criminal justice system did not give real meaning to the presumption of innocence.


The famous maxim that “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer” as was so eloquently put by William Blackstone has been meant to guide our justice system. However, as the long list of wrongful convictions (which for Canadian cases can be accessed at Innocence Canada’s website https://www.innocencecanada.com/exonerations and for American cases at the Innocence Project’s website https://www.innocenceproject.org/all-cases/ ) show, this maxim is not always the driving force in the criminal justice process.


That is where effective defence lawyers come into play. Our role is to be the constant reminder to all members of the criminal justice system that from when a person enters the court room on their first appearance in a court room, right up until the ultimate disposition, that individual is to be presumed innocent. As defence attorneys, our role is to raise any and all reasonable defences available to our client and hold the state to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If we do not adequately perform our job than we leave open the door for miscarriages of justice.


Throughout my legal education, I continued to learn and appreciate more the vital importance of the presumption of innocence, and the role of the criminal defence attorney. In Ontario, we have an adversarial justice system whose success is predicate on two sides advocating their position. Without competent and hardworking defence attorneys, the scales of justice will tip far from balance and the power of the state will be left unchecked. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be a part of the extremely effective criminal defence bar we have in Ontario. I always make sure that I approach each case I have with the presumption of innocence at the forefront of my mind.


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