The criminal justice system – particularly at sentencing – necessarily casts an unflattering light on those who have committed crimes. Prosecutors correctly inform the sentencing court of the bad deeds that resulted in the defendant’s conviction. Probation Officers also traditionally focus on the crime, and ignore (or give short shrift) to the defendant’s good deeds.
The role of the defense lawyer, however, is to make sure that the sentencing court is aware of the defendants’ laudatory acts, which are often unselfish and generous. I have rarely encountered a defendant in a criminal case who has not helped someone along with way without any expectation of some reward in return.
Which brings me to Lance Armstrong. Whether Lance Armstrong will be prosecuted criminally is, at this point, a matter of pure conjecture. However, Armstrong will surely be judged harshly in the court of public opinion, as well he should. He brought disgrace to his sport, his sponsors (most notably the U.S. Postal Service, Nike, Trek Bicycles and Anheuser-Busch) and his teammates. He cheated those against whom he raced (except for those who doped like Armstrong did). And he tarnished the reputation of a non-for-profit, Livestrong, which has done a lot of good work for cancer survivors. In sum, he leaves a large number of victims in his wake, for which he deserves scorn and condemnation.
However, the defense lawyer in me was struck by a recent letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, entitled “Lance Armstrong as a Flawed Hero.” It was written by a man from California who, 15 years earlier, had been diagnosed with cancer, and had written to Livestrong for advice on how to treat the cancer. The man wrote: “Lance Armstrong himself emailed me and suggested I see his doctor in Indiana. Lance called his doctor for me. The doctor said I did not need both testicles removed or radiation. He modified my chemo to reduce scarring in my lungs. I was cured. I have a very different survivor experience because of Lance. Lance did not need to help me, a stranger. He gained nothing other than the knowledge he did some good.”
Of course, selfless acts of kindness like the one described in The Wall St. Journal are no defense to Armstrong’s acts of dishonesty. But defense lawyers are wired to look at the offender in a light that is broader than the just the acts of dishonesty. Prosecutors are wired to protect the public and punish the guilty.
Which is why Lance Armstrong’s situation is really is a Rorschach test. Some people will look at him as the personification of evil. Others will see someone who clearly did good, and, who used success achieved through dishonesty to enrich himself, but also to help those who needed help. The defense lawyer understands and values both points of view.