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Developing the Best Criminal Defense Strategy

Criminal Defense Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War

Sun Tzu is best known as a military commander, strategist, and philosopher. He is believed to have lived approximately 2500 years ago in China. But the theories of military strategy attributed to him in The Art of War continue to influence our world today.

The American criminal justice system is based on adversarial principles that have sometimes been compared to a "war" between prosecutor and defense. Certain ideas from Sun Tzu's military philosophy can contribute to developing the best criminal defense strategy. With the assistance of an experienced Utah criminal defense attorney, these principles can help you reach the best outcome for your criminal defense case.

"The greatest victory is that which requires no battle."

According to Sun Tzu, the best victories are achieved when the opponent surrenders on its own before any actual fighting begins. In any military combat, there is some risk. Achieving one’s goal without having to risk anything from your side is the ideal combat situation.

Some criminal defense attorneys assert that an "aggressive" strategy will help their clients most. But just as there is always some risk in military combat, there are also risks any time a criminal defense case goes to jury trial.

Sun Tzu wrote, "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the epitome of skill." If it is possible to gain a victory without going into the formal battle of a jury trial, then the risks and costs of extended criminal litigation can be avoided.

A dismissal prior to jury trial based on legal motions can provide the same benefits as a jury's not guilty verdict, but without the risks and costs associated with trial. A plea in abeyance can provide certainty by giving the defendant control over the outcome of the case, rather than leaving the results to the judgment of a jury. A negotiated resolution may provide a guarantee that a felony conviction and prison time will be avoided. If the necessary results can be achieved without taking the criminal case to trial, that may provide the defendant with the greatest victory.

"Know your enemy, and know yourself."

"If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither your enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Sun Tzu

Most criminal defendant's know their side of the story. "Knowing yourself" is the first step to developing a successful defense strategy. It is necessary to be familiar with the defense case inside and out from the defender’s point of view - both the strengths and the weaknesses. But beyond the obvious "my side of the story," having a thorough understanding of the statutes, the supporting case law, and other legal aspects is critical to achieving victory. Knowing the client's side of the story is important. But the best defense attorneys take the time to develop a thorough understanding of the legal elements of the case.

It’s not unusual for a defendant to feel he or she has a strong case when only his or her point of view is considered. The problem with this defense approach is that the prosecuting attorney has different point of view. A good criminal defense attorney must also analyze the case from the vantage point of the prosecutor, and consider every angle, every weakness where the case can be attacked and defeated. With this broader perspective, the defense attorney can also consider the weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case and how best to handle them. This careful preparation creates a strong defense because the criminal attorney also "knows the enemy."

The worst position in defending a criminal case comes about when there is neither an understanding of the defense case nor of the prosecution. If this is true, then as Sun Tzu said, "you will succumb in every battle."

"He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious."

There are a lot of criminal defense attorneys who claim to be "aggressive." The reality is that an "aggressive" approach is not always the best approach. There are times when diplomacy, finesse, and sophisticated legal argument are more likely to achieve the needed results.

Sun Tzu suggests that there are times when it is advantageous to engage in a fight, and times when it is not so. A successful military strategist must be able to make ongoing, realistic assessments of himself and the opposition, and adjust his strategy accordingly. Similarly, a successful criminal defense attorney must be able to distinguish between arguments and motions that are likely to succeed and those that are not, and craft a legal defense strategy tailored to suit the specific facts of the case and circumstances of the client.

Finding a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney in Salt Lake City

Utah Criminal LawyerIf you are facing prosecution for criminal charges in Utah, it is vital to have the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Beyond finding an attorney who is "aggressive," it is important to find an attorney who has the legal skills and abilities to help you achieve the results you need. For some cases, this may mean fighting the case through to jury trial. But for many cases, the necessary results can be achieved by other means.

Based in Salt Lake City, criminal attorney Stephen Howard has successfully protected his clients' rights in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases. He has achieved victories through jury trials, legal motions, appeals, and successful plea negotiations. His track record includes successful outcomes in some of the most serious felony charges on the books in Utah, including homicide, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, burglary, drug distribution, drug possession, forgery, theft, fraud, and more. He has also successfully handled a wide variety of misdemeanor charges, including DUI, domestic violence, alcohol charges, marijuana possession, drug paraphernalia, retail theft, intoxication, and more. Mr. Howard also assists clients in clearing or reducing their records through the expungement process and 402 reduction motions.

With offices centrally located in downtown Salt Lake City, Mr. Howard provides legal services to clients throughout Utah. Contact us today to arrange for an initial confidential consultation.


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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

Offices in Salt Lake and Davis Counties
560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

Call now to arrange for a confidential initial consultation with an experienced and effective Utah criminal defense lawyer.

In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
In Davis County, call 801-923-4345.

Stephen W. Howard, PC

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