One of the big ethical questions for many people, lawyers included, is:  “How could you possibly defend someone that you KNOW is guilty?”

In 1973, Robert Garrow murdered a young man and admitted it to his lawyers – going on to say that he also had abducted, raped and murdered others, in other incidents, before this.  Garrow told his lawyers where he had dumped his victims’ bodies. His lawyers confirmed this by photographing the remains at the locations Garrow had identified. One lawyer even re-positioned a dismembered body part to bring it within range of his camera to get a better photo.

The lawyers said nothing, told no one.  They did not reveal that they had located other victims’ bodies — even after one father begged them for information about the fate of his missing daughter. These victims’ bodies were accidentally discovered several months later in separate locations hundreds of miles apart.  And still, the lawyers never said a word.

These are all valid ethical actions under the lawyers’ Model Code and its replacement, the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

While the attorneys insisted that their duty to their client required them to remain silent, they were widely reviled. Their once-thriving law practices withered. They received hate mail and death threats. Longtime friends stopped speaking to them. They had to move out of their homes. Their lives were ruined.

The parents of one victim filed an ethics complaint against the two lawyers with state bar disciplinary officials. It took four years, but that complaint too was eventually dismissed. In its decision, the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association said the assurance of confidentiality helps encourage proper representation, which requires full disclosure of all relevant facts by the client—even if those facts include the commission of prior crimes. Opinion 479 (1978).

One of the lawyers is still living, is semiretired, and widely regarded within the legal profession as a hero.  The case was even the subject of a book titled Privileged Information  and the basis for the 1987 feature film Sworn to Silence. That lawyer insists he is no hero, but says he would handle the Garrow case just the same if he had it to do over again. “Of course,” he says. “I’d have to.”