John Hill has heard it many times. How can defense attorneys represent people they know are guilty?

But in most cases, the question is not whether the client is guilty, but to what degree, the director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association told the Footprinters law enforcement group recently."What exactly is the person guilty of? Is it aggravated robbery or a lesser crime? What is the degree of culpability of the person involved? Those are the questions we're interested in answering," he said.

Many times a suspect is "overcharged" by the county attorney, he said, and the charges can't always be justified from the facts. So it's often up to defense attorneys to balance a case and find some middle ground.

During 1990, the association handled more than 7,300 cases, 17 of them murder cases, he said. The caseload is handled entirely by 30 full-time attorneys, four investigators and one social worker.

Ninety percent of all suspects charged with felonies are referred by a judge to the association because they can't afford an attorney, he said.

Most clients are young, have not completed high school, have no job training, no substantial employment history and often come from disadvantaged and broken homes.

And compared with private legal counsel, the LDA is a bargain, he said.

The office spends an average of about $320 per case, and that includes capital homicide cases where the death penalty is a question. Hiring a private attorney in a high-profile case could run as high as $300,000, he estimated.

The time commitment required in following a capital case for a decade through the justice system also makes it difficult to find a defense attorney willing to take the case, he said.

After the Hi Fi Shop murders in Ogden in the early 1970s, the LDA looked statewide before finally finding a willing attorney, he said.

One problem is the way the public views an attorney willing to defend someone suspected of a grisly crime.

"I know the public perception of those attorneys is that somehow they condone the act, or identify with the defendant by the mere fact they are committed enough to provide a constitutional right that our system requires," he said.

In 1990, only 3 percent of the 68 cases filed in Salt Lake County made it all the way to trial. Of those, juries found 32 defendants guilty, 26 were found not guilty, six were found guilty of a lesser crime and four ended in hung juries.

Out of court, the LDA's biggest battle is with financing. With an annual budget of $2.5 million, the association struggles to remain a viable element of the justice system, Hill said.

"If we're understaffed and don't have the experience to deal with the cases were confronted with, what happens is, delays, witnesses appearing and being sent back home without a disposition, lawsuits and a loss of credibility," he said.