National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) President Martín Antonio Sabelli issued the following statement on behalf of NACDL:
Washington, DC (Nov. 30, 2021) – NACDL envisions a society in which all individuals receive fair, rational, and humane treatment within the criminal legal system. Dehumanizing individuals – including the accused, witnesses, jurors, alleged victims, or members of the public attending a trial – undermines our efforts to realize this vision. Dehumanizing individuals based on race does violence not only to the individuals, families, and communities directly involved but also to a society seeking to redress centuries of racial discrimination, division, and discord.
Given our commitment to this noble vision, and given the national focus on the Arbery trial, we feel compelled to comment on specific tactics employed in the Arbery trial. We do so sensitive to the fact that only the trial lawyers know the full story but also conscious of the need to face our own demons if we are to criticize others including prosecutors, police, and judges for dehumanizing language, attitudes, and conduct on their part.
Concretely, the Arbery trial presents an opportunity to ask ourselves whether defense counsel, as officers of the court, should be permitted to appeal to racism to win trials in a society pervaded by racism? As the voice of the criminal defense bar, NACDL submits that defense counsel cannot invoke racism as a tactic to win whether this tactic succeeds or fails. NACDL believes that the constitutionally mandated criminal defense function does not permit dehumanizing a client, a witness, a juror, alleged victim, or any person in the courtroom based on a characteristic protected by the Constitution including race and ethnicity. NACDL submits that dehumanizing racist language has no place in the courtroom even spoken by a lawyer who has zealously and effectively defended clients including clients of color for decades. Even the best of us fail and in our failures we can choose to discover truths that will move us closer to our vision.
NACDL therefore respectfully asks that we all take this opportunity to hold a mirror steady to ourselves to face the reality that in modern America – after centuries of racism – we must all consistently endeavor to ensure that we do not cross the line from zealous advocacy to dehumanization. We hope and trust that the tragic loss of so many lives, including that of Mr. Arbery, inspires all of us – defense counsel, prosecutors, police, probation officers, and others entrusted with the Pursuit of Justice – to find the courage to confront our own failings and those of our colleagues as painful as this process may be.