Future Defense Lawyers Should Follow the Nidal Hasan Trial

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I’ll do us all a favor and spare you the details of the Ft. Hood massacre. If you need them, a quick Google search ought to turn up whatever you need. What I will discuss here is the unique position in which the lawyers for gunman Nidal Hasan find themselves.

Hasan has been allowed by the court martial to defend himself with the aid of a legal team headed by Lt. Col. Kris Poppe. Poppe has asked the judge in Hasan’s case to stay her order requiring Lt. Col. Poppe and his team to help Hasan in his defense. Lt. Col. Poppe believes that Hasan intends to facilitate a verdict requiring the death penalty so that he can, in essence, force the military to help him commit suicide.

Lt. Col. Poppe, as someone who opposes suicide, finds himself in what he describes as a “morally repugnant” position. This assertion begs the question of what is ethically required of lawyers vis–à–vis their clients and just what they can be forced to do.

In law school, if you take classes dealing with criminal defense, you learn that certain decisions regarding the course of a defense are ultimately in the hands of the defendant. It is the lawyer’s job to outline different strategies along with their probable outcomes so that the defendant can choose the course she ultimately sees fit.

In other words, if Hasan (as he has) decides to admit to wrongdoing and try to offer up an excuse, then it is Lt. Col. Poppe’s job to advise Hasan about the best course of action for that specific defense strategy. As Hasan is defending himself, Lt. Col. Poppe’s advice may go unheeded, but by offering the advice, Poppe is ethically in the clear.

According to Poppe however, the dilemma is a moral one. Unfortunately, the legal system is not concerned with moral adequacy. The legal system is concerned with the adequacy of one’s defense. For if the defense is deemed somehow inadequate, the verdict can be overturned and a new trial ordered. The judge in Hasan’s case must keep a legal team on to advise Hasan, or risk returning a meaningless verdict. The court can’t make judgments about Hasan’s chosen course of action; it needs only to make sure he is advised of that course’s consequences. Poppe and his team may be in a moral quandary, but if they want the integrity of the legal system to remain intact, then somebody needs to help Hasan in his defense.

That said, I understand Lt. Col. Poppe’s issue with the judge’s order. I wouldn’t want to defend an admitted murderer, nor would I want to aid someone committing suicide. Unfortunately, defense attorneys are often called upon to uphold the integrity of the legal system in a repugnant fashion. Keep cases like this one in mind should you decide to pursue a career in criminal defense.

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