Jeff Jacoby

Lawyers representing three of the men charged in the New Delhi gang rape case said last week that they would enter pleas of not guilty on their clients' behalf. In most criminal prosecutions, that would be unremarkable. But the lawyers who stepped forward to represent the suspects in this case did so in the face of emotional protests by fellow attorneys, many of whom insisted that no one should defend those accused of such a terrible crime.

"There was a good response from the members, and they will not represent," the president of the local bar association had warned. So when attorneys V. K. Anand and Manohar Lal Sharma offered to serve as defense counsel, reported The New York Times, the result was "a chaotic courtroom scene in which other lawyers tried to shout them down."

Indians have been infuriated by the Dec. 16 attack, in which six men on a bus attacked a 23-year-old physical therapy student who was heading home from a movie with a male friend. She was repeatedly raped, and so savagely assaulted with an iron rod that her intestines were destroyed. Eventually the woman and her friend, who was also badly beaten, were thrown bleeding and naked into the street. She died of her injuries two weeks later.

Though violent crimes against women frequently go unpunished in India, this one galvanized a national outcry. The defendants may be the most hated men in India at the moment, and the enraged cries for vengeance go beyond lawyers vowing not to represent them. Of course there was never any question of their actually being denied the right to a legal defense. In India as in the United States, even the most despised defendants are entitled to due process of law. And a fair trial would be impossible without what our Bill of Rights calls "the assistance of counsel."

"I understand the sentiments of the people. But you cannot go by sentiments," Anand told Reuters after agreeing to take the case. "The accused have a right to justice just as the victim has." Indeed, it is typically those charged with the most horrific crimes, or those who are the target of seething public fury, whose need for effective legal counsel is most acute.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for