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Defended a Guilty Man

One of the most famous trials in history was that of Benjamin Francois Courvoisier in London in 1840, who is now immortalized in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Courvoisier was a Swiss valet accused of slicing the throat of his elderly employer, Lord William Russell.

What made this trial notorious was the argument for the defense. The police had bungled the investigation. The evidence against Courvoisier was entirely circumstantial or had been planted. One of the officers had perjured himself, and the maid’s testimony brought suspicion on herself. The defense attorney, Charles Phillips, was convinced of the innocence of Courvoisier and cross-examined witnesses aggressively. At the beginning of the second day of the trial, however, Courvoisier confessed privately to his lawyer that he had committed the murder. When asked if he were going to plead guilty, he replied to Charles Phillips, “No, sir, I expect you to defend me to the utmost.”

Phillips was faced with a dilemma. Should he declare to the court that the man was guilty, or should he defend Courvoisier as best he could? Should he break the confidentiality of the client-lawyer relationship, or should he help a guilty man to possibly go free? Which is more important—truth or professional duty'

Phillips decided to defend the guilty man. But despite Phillips’s efforts, Courvoisier was convicted. When the dilemma was later made public, Phillips’s decision to defend a murderer horrified British society and brought him a great deal of criticism.

Between Two Truths - Living with Biblical Tensions, Klyne Snodgrass, 1990, Zondervan Publishing House, pp. 11-12