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Keeping justice in perspective: Rethinking codes of ethics

The road to justice is difficult, so recognizing our inconsistent beliefs and justifications is paramount to acting appropriately


Codes of ethics in the criminal justice system are intended to help individuals uphold the values and principles of the law and provide guidelines for justice.

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By Scot DuFour, alumnus, American Public University

Codes of ethics in the criminal justice system are intended to help individuals uphold the values and principles of the law and provide guidelines for justice. Occasionally, these codes of ethics can create conflicts which jeopardize the broad concepts of justice that they mean to promote. The philosopher Socrates once said “doing injustice is the greatest of evils” and made a very strong argument that doing injustice is worse than suffering injustice.

The U.S. criminal justice system has adopted this concept, as evidenced by the common agreement that it is better for 10 guilty people to go free than one innocent person be imprisoned. However, in some cases, such codes of ethics are actually the reason innocent men have been knowingly imprisoned.

Convicting an Innocent Man: The Case of Alton Logan

In 1982, Alton Logan was arrested and charged with the murder of a security guard at a McDonald’s restaurant. Logan maintained that he did not commit the crime, but nonetheless he was convicted of the murder. In a seemingly unrelated case, public defenders Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz represented Andrew Wilson for the murder of two police officers. However, Wilson told his two public defenders that he was actually the person who killed the McDonald’s security guard, not Logan. Despite the knowledge that an innocent man was serving a life sentence for the crimes of their client, Coventry and Kunz chose to keep it a secret for 26 years. Why?

After learning this information from Wilson, Coventry and Kunz consulted judges and other attorneys and explained the situation in a hypothetical manner. All of those consulted advised them that they would be violating their legal ethics as Wilson’s attorneys if they revealed the truth. Coventry even attended part of the criminal trial for Logan, knowing that this man may be executed for a crime he did not commit. Coventry stated, “it’s pretty creepy watching people deciding if they’re going to kill an innocent man.”

In this case, it is clear that Coventry and Kunz held their duty of fidelity (the attorney-client privilege) in higher regard than their duty of justice. It is worth noting that Coventry and Kunz were not alone in their reasoning – their decision not to act was apparently widely accepted as proper behavior among many other attorneys.

Can Duty-Based Ethics Justify Inaction?

Can the most common ethical theories that form the basis of the criminal justice system justify the inaction by these two attorneys? Some variations of duty-based ethics, called deontological ethics, require everyone to adhere to several prima facie duties like fidelity, reparation, gratitude, non-injury, beneficence, and justice.

Deontological ethics would ask if Coventry and Kunz would be willing to make their actions a universal law that would require all lawyers in the same situation to act in the same way. Such a law would apply even if it were Coventry’s daughter or Kunz’s brother who were wrongfully sentenced to life in prison.

This discussion must include Coventry and Kunz’s duties of non-injury to Wilson and to Logan, along with their duties of beneficence, and, most importantly, to justice. Since Logan was not being punished for the murder (since one cannot be punished for a crime one did not commit) how should we classify the imprisonment of Logan? We can’t. All forms of deontological ethics do not support the imprisonment of Logan.

Consequentialist Theory

Can Coventry and Kunz’s behavior be justified on any sort of consequentialist basis? The consequences of their inaction include:

  • Wilson, a convicted murderer serving life in prison in another case, was not charged with another crime to which he confessed
  • Logan’s continued imprisonment for a crime he did not commit
  • The adherence to a job-specific legal ethic honoring of the attorney-client privilege
  • And, perhaps, the ability of the two attorneys to maintain their license to practice law

Kunz and Coventry both place blame on the prosecutors and the police for what happened and insist that their obligation was to Wilson. In an Associated Press article in 2008, Kunz was quoted as saying, “If I had ratted him out…then I could feel guilty, then I could not live with myself…Should I do the right thing by Alton Logan and put my client’s neck in the noose or not? It’s clear where my responsibility lies and my responsibility lies with my client.” The truth didn’t come out until after Wilson died – on his death bed he told his lawyers they could reveal he admitted to the murder.

Despite Coventry and Kunz’s adherence to a specific ethic they had adopted, it seems that there is no deontological justification for their actions unless it can be claimed that the attorney-client privilege should be applied without exception, and it should become a universal law. By selecting this option, however, the idea that people are subject to punishment when they morally deserve that punishment is undermined.

Coventry and Kunz believed there were exceptions to the concept that innocent people should be immune from imprisonment. The resulting option for ethical justification of their action is some form of consequentialist argument. Coventry and Kunz are claiming that the act of keeping their client free from another murder case was more important than the freedom of an innocent man.

When is it Ethical to Violate Codes of Ethics?

This situation brings up another important aspect of ethics and duty. Is there ever a time where violating the law or codes of ethics is the right thing to do? In historical situations like slavery, the civil rights movement, or Nazi Germany, would violating the culturally accepted norms or laws have been the right thing to do? With hindsight, it is easy to say that people who fought for the persecuted were acting in the morally praiseworthy way. At the time, however, it would not have been easy to violate the laws and norms of society.

Applying Ethical Theory to Law Enforcement

It is equally important for police officers to have a grasp of the ethical theories that ground their decision-making. Officers can make the same mistake as Coventry or Kunz by letting adherence to police codes of ethics, official or informal, override their role in seeking justice. The police code of ethics provides some good advice, but it can confound ethical theories and is often silent on how the duties should be completed.

The government and law enforcement have a special responsibility towards protecting the people. In general, the criminal justice system’s primary role should be to safeguard the life, liberty, and property of its citizens, a task that involves determining how to punish society’s criminals. The methods for how best to achieve those goals may be debatable, but the ultimate goals are known. Prosecutors, public defenders, private defense counsel, and police officers all have unique roles within the same system designed to meet the demand for justice.

Duties will conflict when each of those specific professions defines justice, equity, or duty in their own way. When attorneys know an innocent man may be executed for a crime he did not commit and keep it a secret for 26 years, they are minimizing the goal of the justice system. When police officers lie or fabricate evidence, they are ignoring their duty to protecting the life, liberty, and property of every individual.


Unfortunately, any discussion of duty and justice can be convoluted and difficult. Understanding codes of ethics does not provide the exact answers to each situation; the value lies in the theory’s ability to illuminate the basis of our thinking.

People so often find themselves with strong opinions about moral decisions without fully understanding or examining their position. Justice is not a fixed concept and there is no foolproof guide to determine the proper course of action.

The important thing is to remain informed, thoughtful, and willing to analyze positions with an aim towards doing justice. The road to justice is difficult, so recognizing our inconsistent beliefs and justifications is paramount to acting appropriately. Dogmatic adherence to anything other than justice can have disastrous consequences.

About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently an investigator with the Aurora Police Department in Aurora, Colorado. Scot was previously a police officer in Arizona and a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email

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