If you want to run for office some day, you better not believe that everyone is entitled to legal counsel before the government locks them away. Or, at least, that’s the message sent by a new Republican Governors Association ad targeting Vincent Sheheen, a former prosecutor who now represents civil and criminal clients in private practice. Sheheen is a Democratic candidate for governor against incumbent Nikki Haley (R-SC).
The RGA’s ad attacks Sheheen for “defend[ing] violent criminals” and ends with the tagline “Vincent Sheheen protects criminals not South Carolina.” Watch it:
The implication of this ad is that Sheheen is somehow unfit for public office because he once provided legal counsel to people accused of crimes. Indeed, the ad lists several serious crimes, including sex offenses and child abuse, that Sheheen’s clients were accused of committing. It is likely that many of these clients are very, very bad people.
But in the American justice system, we do not presume that anyone is guilty of a crime until after they have received a trial where they were represented by counsel — indeed, we afford all criminal defendants a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Moreover, as the Supreme Court explained more than half a century ago, the right to a trial often means little unless criminal defendants enjoy the right to counsel. Without an attorney, Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1963, an innocent man “faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”
Sheheen’s clients may very well have committed horrible crimes. But we do not lock people away in prisons in the United States until their guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is how we protect innocent men and women from winding up in those same prisons alongside the guilty.
This ad is at least the second time in as many months that Republicans lashed out at an attorney because he stood up for a person accused of a serious crime in court. Last month, every single Senate Republican who voted joined with a handful of Democrats to vote down Debo Adegbile, who was nominated to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The fact that Adegbile once signed a brief arguing that a convicted cop killer was unconstitutionally sentenced to die played a major role in the campaign against him. A panel of predominantly Republican judges eventually held that this death sentence was, indeed, unconstitutional.