LEWISTON — During his 36 years as a defense lawyer, not one of Leonard Sharon’s clients ever walked into his office guilty of a crime.
They all remained innocent until or unless government prosecutors proved them guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in court, Sharon told nearly 100 people packed into the Marsden Hartley Cultural Center Thursday. He was the lead-off speaker of the Great Falls Forum Series, hosted by local businesses and the Lewiston Public Library.
Sharon shares an office in Auburn, a stone’s throw from Androscoggin County Superior Court, where he plies his trade. It’s not only his job, he said, but also his duty to provide the best defense for his clients. He couldn’t do that if he allowed prejudice to color his perceptions of people at the time of their greatest need.
“Who am I to judge my clients?” he said.
Sharon, 60, grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a grocery store owner. After becoming a lawyer, he toured a local penitentiary. A childhood playmate recognized Sharon, whose 6-foot, 8-inch frame stands out in a crowd.
“What are you doing?” Sharon asked.
“Ten years for armed robbery,” the man answered.
“He was the same as me,” Sharon said, puzzling over the circumstances that led the two boys in different directions.
“Why is that? I don’t know,” he said. “But for the grace of God, that could be me.”
For that reason, Sharon said he sometimes is viewed as his clients’ conspirator. When he’s spotted at the supermarket, folks sometimes turn on their heels.
“I am the person that everybody loves to hate,” he said.
But that changes when those same people or their friends or relatives are charged with a crime. At that moment, he said, he is transformed into the person “you would want to have on your speed dial.”
He has represented fighter pilots, priests, professors and child molesters, rapists and heroin addicts.
All of his clients, no matter how different, have one thing in common, he said.
“They’re scared to death.”
A conviction can mean prison for some and a glass ceiling at work for others.
What often separates defendants is wealth and race, he said.
The legal system “favors white people with money for a whole lot of reasons.”
Money can help with researchers, jury consultants, investigators and other resources that might provide an edge in the courtroom, he said. It also, before trial, can mean the difference between sitting in jail or being out on bail.
Does he feel bad if he is successful in getting an acquittal for a client who then commits a crime?
He does, he said, adding that he has to learn to live with that.
“I’m a human being,” he said. Taking a cue from his wife, he said, “I’ve got to take myself off the hook because it’s not my fault.”