The defendant before you is an innocent man.” That claim, rarely heard in a court of appeals and still more rarely sustained, compels the attention of the judge. All our provisions for appeal, our careful scrutiny of the record, our hearing of argument, our conferencing and analysis are designed to prevent just such a perversion of the criminal process as the infliction of punishment upon an innocent person. It is not our way to imprison a defendant because we do not like him or find his conduct worthy of disapproval. If he is to be stamped a felon by federal law, he must have committed a federal crime. If he has not, he is innocent. Such Marsh contends he is. Such Marsh should be found to be.
So wrote Judge John T. Noonan Jr., who died Monday at age 90. (photo credit) It appeared in United States v. Marsh, a 1994 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
For all but a very few, Marsh was a mine-run case. And yet, I personally have never forgotten the quoted passage. For I was the Assistant Federal Public Defender who, late on the morning of November 3, 1993, stood before 3 judges – all of them slouched in their chairs, stern-faced and not a little tired after hearing a long string of short oral arguments – and began the scant 10 minutes allotted for her client’s quixotic appeal with these words: