Empathy in Criminal Law

Posted by

By: Winter Barry ’23

I would first and foremost like to thank Michael A. Battle for creating this fellowship that gave me the opportunity to have an absolutely lifechanging summer at the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Western District of New York in their Buffalo office. Without their kindness this opportunity might not have been possible for me. I met the most amazing people, had the opportunity to help with some fascinating cases, and overall I believe became a better, more empathetic person during this fellowship 

I have learned many things over the last eight weeks. I dove deep into the Fourth Amendment, learned how federal court is run, got to study safety valve eligibility, and so many other things. But, more important than any of those things, I have learned to have more empathy. 

Being a defense attorney, and even more so, a public defender, takes a lot of heart, needs a lot of compassion, and requires a lot of empathy. I think that it is easy as a human to be empathetic towards a victim, after all they were the person injured by another person’s actions. But it is much harder to be empathetic for the person who caused that injury. It is easy to judge someone based on the worst thing they have arguably ever done in their life, but having true empathy requires looking past that thing and seeing the “wrongdoer” for who they are as a person, in their totality. 

This summer has shown me that all people are more than just a criminal complaint that has been brought against them. People are the products of their environment. Someone who receives no love, no compassion, and no guidance when they are a child is going to have a difficult time as an adult. Yet, we hold their environment against a person and expect them to overcome all the terrible things life has thrown at them, without ever making a mistake. I find it rather hypocritical. 

It occurred to me in wrapping up my eight weeks with the Federal Public Defender’s Office that without this opportunity, I would have never truly understood the impact that even a little bit of empathy can have. Defendants are still people, people at arguably their most vulnerable. Without an attorney who has compassion, empathy, and a listening ear, there would be no one there to truly advocate for criminal defendants. 

As previously stated, it is easy to advocate for a victim, but defendants require advocacy as well. The ease with which some people can brush off criminal defendants was made abundantly clear to me when I told family and friends about my internship in this office. The first question I received every time was: “how can you represent someone who committed ‘x’ crime?” Over time answering that question became easier and easier. Being a defense attorney does not mean that you believe your client can do no wrong, or has done no wrong. Being a defense attorney means that you are willing to listen, and advocate for someone during some of the most trying times of their life, making sure that they are granted every right afforded to them by the United States Constitution, and at the state level, individual state constitutions. Defense attorneys are there to make sure that the Government meets their burden of proof. Defense attorneys are there to keep the scales of justice balanced. 

After this experience I believe that every law student even remotely interested in criminal law, whether it be criminal defense or prosecution, should be required to intern/shadow with a defense attorney. That way everyone can learn, and hopefully in their future, practice with just a little more empathy for criminal defendants who are more than just their own criminal complaint. I am grateful to the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program, and the fellowship made possible by Michael A. Battle, for the experience.

Name: Winter Barry ’23

Name of Fellowship: Michael A. Battle ’81 Fellowship

Placement: Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Western District of New York 

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Without an attorney who has compassion, empathy, and a listening ear, there would be no one there to truly advocate for criminal defendants. ”