Defending the undefendable?



A question that is commonly asked to criminal defence practitioners is, ‘how can you defend a murderer?’ In the light of the murder of Lee Rigby, and the huge criticism of the defence barristers, this article will explain why nobody is undefendable and how everybody should be defended in the same way, no matter what.


First, it must be considered how heinous crimes provoke strong emotion, emotion that always leads to the question posed that is the focus of this article. Murder, sexual offences and offences involving children, to name a few, can stir emotions within some of the most reserved members of society. Many of these crimes, through the media, are often quickly placed in centre of the public sphere. Undoubtedly when someone is then arrested this also makes it in to the media, provoking the public to respond with comments such as ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ and worse. This public clamour is a typical side effect of high profile crimes. In the heat of the moment, one can forget many basic principles which provide a very easy answer to what at first may have seem like a mind boggling question.


Innocent until proven guilty is a fundamental right every person in the United Kingdom is treated with. In addition to that, guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. That means a high standard must be applied to the determination of guilt. Furthermore, the process by which the guilt has to be proven must comply with what we know as a fair trial. Every person in the United Kingdom is entitled to a fair trial. These are all some of the most basic, yet most important, rights in which we all hold. They should not be taken for granted or be naively forgotten in the midst of strong emotion. They should not be disposed of no matter what the crime is and no matter how serious. In short, our legal system would not work properly if people are denied access to it by lawyers that decide upon the case before the case even goes to trial. If solicitors and barristers could refuse to represent people because they had already decided the person was guilty, the legal system as we know it would fall apart. In order for our legal system to work properly it must be applied to everyone in the same way; it cannot distinguish between who should and who should not be entitled to certain aspects of it. If this was the case where do you draw the line?


Taking the specific case of the two men who murdered Lee Rigby: Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. In this case it can be argued it was clear they had committed the crime; thefore, it was argued their trial would be largely a waste of time and expense. Adebolajo and Adebowale’s legal team, first, during the murder trial ran an argument on the basis that the murder did not take place under the Queen’s peace. The murder being carried out under the Queen’s peace is a requirement of the crime. They argued they were fighting a war and as such were not under the Queen’s peace. In addition, after this was rejected and the pair were found guilty and sentenced the legal team for Adebolajo ran an argument that he should not be given a ‘whole life sentence’ on the basis that he only killed one person, and as such, it could not fulfil the criteria laid out to satisfy the requirements for a whole life order to be given. At first glance, many cannot understand how these legal teams could defend these people, let alone put forward arguments such as those which were put forward in their defence. Lots of criticism was made of the barristers in this case.

The Queen’s peace argument. Although this could be said to have been an argument doomed to fail, it was plausible. It was an issue that had not arisen before in the same context and the argument was rightly run in order to ensure clarity in the law. A similar argument applies to the ‘whole life sentence’ argument. Can a whole life sentence be given for a single murder? More importantly, should a whole life sentence be given for a single murder? Is a single murder capable of being sufficiently serious, in any circumstances, to warrant a whole life order being imposed? This is an important point of law; to promote clarity in the law it should be addressed.

However, this analysis was not the explanation put forward by the barrister himself. Instead, the barrister representing Adebolajo, David Gottlieb, in his closing speech to the court, said, ‘I want to make it clear it is important he is properly defended. He is a killer, he’s a monster, he said he will kill again. But it is a very dangerous slippery slope to say because you don’t like him, because he’s a monster, that you don’t apply the same standards to him as everyone else.’

This returns us circularly to the initial answer given. The fundamental rights outlined: the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof and the right to a fair trial. These rights are the simple answer to the question, ‘how can you defend a murderer?’ The presumption of innocence, the burden of proof and the right to a fair trial.



Dale Timson

LLB (Honours) Student & Aspiring Barrister


2 thoughts on “Defending the undefendable?

  1. Spot on! When you defend you do so fearlessly so as to ensure a fair trial regardless of the offence charged.

  2. I don’t know if you can actually say defending the undefendable because the law is innocent until proven guilty. Unless there is evidence that specifically points to the client, you have to work to help get the person off. I think it would be hard to work for someone that was guilty of the crime because you would be trying to get them the lightest sentence possible.

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