The title above is controversial in many ways. Defense attorneys didn't step forward to exonerate an innocent man sentenced to live in prison for the crime they knew their client committed. Outrageous on the face, but the issue is more complex than it may appear at first glance. (I'll try to excerpt the important points, but you may want to read the whole thing.)
Alton Logan was convicted of killing a security guard at a McDonald's in Chicago in 1982. Police arrested him after a tip and got three eyewitnesses to identify him. Logan, his mother and brother all testified he was at home asleep when the murder occurred. But a jury found him guilty of first degree murder. ...
Logan, who maintains he didn't commit the murder, thought they were "crazy" when he was arrested for the crime.
Attorneys Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz knew Logan had good reason to think that, because they knew he was innocent. And they knew that because their client, Andrew Wilson, who they were defending for killing two policemen, confessed to them that he had also killed the security guard at McDonald's - the crime Logan was charged with committing. ...
The problem was the killer was their client. So, legally, they had to keep his secret even though an innocent man was about to be tried for murder.
"I know a lot of people who would say, 'Hey if the guy's innocent you've got to say so. You can't let him rot because of that,'" Simon remarked.
"Well, the vast majority of the public apparently believes that, but if you check with attorneys or ethics committees or you know anybody who knows the rules of conduct for attorneys, it’s very, very clear-it's not morally clear-but we're in a position to where we have to maintain client confidentiality, just as a priest would or a doctor would. It's just a requirement of the law. The system wouldn't work without it," Coventry explained.
Even if Coventry and Simon had been willing to betray their client, their testimony would not have been admissible in court. The attorney-client privilege belongs to the client, and even if the attorneys published a book their information could never be considered at trial. Coventry and Simon could probably have found some way to exonerate Logan, but they took their duty to their own client very seriously.
Were they right to? Is a system that requires these kinds of decisions really interested in "justice"? In the end, I think so. Commenter Malvolio at The Volokh Conspiracy has the most significant point in my opinion:
If you pay attention, you'll notice that attorney-client confidentiality didn't make the unfortunate Mr Logan any worse off. If no confidentiality existed, Wilson would simply not have confessed to his lawyers. Wilson would have gotten a worse defense, but Logan would not have gotten a better one.
If attorneys were allowed to break privilege (or did anyway) when the stakes were "high enough", then their clients simply wouldn't share their secrets. The clients would lose the benefits of expert legal advice, and the "victims" of the secrets would still suffer.
Additionally, in a world without attorney-client privilege it's non-lawyers who would suffer the most. Lawyers who go on trial would be able to represent themselves and hold all their secrets in their minds, but non-lawyers would be forced to rely on another person who could not be trusted to the degree one trusts oneself.
As difficult as the situation is to reconcile with simple morality, I believe it is true that the legal system as a whole is more fair and ethical than it would otherwise be precisely because some of its participants are allowed/required to behave in a way that would be considered immoral in another context.