Students, staff and members of the community learned about the role of the criminal lawyer from one of Canada’s best, during an appearance by famed defence lawyer Edward Greenspan September 18 organized by NC’s School of Justice Studies.
Greenspan, whose remarkable career has seen him defend some of Canada’s most high-profile accused, spoke to a capacity crowd at NC’s Applied Health Auditorium.
For Greenspan, it was a homecoming of sorts – the Niagara Falls native, after graduating from law school in the early 1960s, articled in Welland with then-Crown Attorney Don Scott, and had his first trial experience against famed Welland lawyer Allan Goodman.
“It’s always a great pleasure to return to my roots, which are here,” he said.
Greenspan spent the evening explaining – and advocating for – the role of the criminal lawyer in Canadian society, which he admits is often misunderstood and looked down upon by those who have trouble accepting that someone would willingly defend those who have committed heinous crimes.
“Even my own mother was ambivalent about what I do for a living,” he said. “I’ve often said that Al Capone’s mother had a much more tolerant understanding of her son’s job than my mother had of mine.”
What those who deride his profession fail to see, he says, is the distinction between the individual, and what the individual stands accused of doing.
“I don’t have the slightest moral conflict in defending people accused of homicide, sexual assault, business fraud, environmental offences or even crimes against humanity,” he said. “I don’t draw the line at anything; if I defended crime, maybe I would, but I don’t defend crime — I only defend people who are presumed to be innocent.
Criminal lawyers, Greenspan says, play an important role in the judicial system as the only element tasked solely with defending the rights of an accused individual above all else.
“Insofar as the law permits, (the criminal lawyer) must put the accusers on trial,” he said. “This is a defence lawyer’s duty – a duty not only to the client, but to society.”
Greenspan also pointed to criminal lawyers throughout history who have used their skills and abilities to make lasting impacts on society – from founding fathers such as Sir John A. MacDonald to famed trial attorney Clarence Darrow.
“If you are a criminal lawyer, you stand between the abuse of governmental power and the individual,” he said. “If you are a criminal lawyer you stand between the abuse of judicial power and the individual, and if you are a criminal lawyer you are helping to mould the rights of individuals for generations to come.”
It was Justice Studies professor Jim Norgate who initially reached out to Greenspan, with the hopes of initiating a distinguished speaker event that gave students the opportunity to hear from “the best of the best.”
“When he learned what we were trying to do, Mr. Greenspan was very receptive, and he couldn’t have been more accommodating,” Norgate said.