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Serious problems persist in indigent legal defense

  • FILE -  This Aug. 6, 1963, file photo shows Clarence Earl Gideon, 52, the mechanic who changed the course of legal history, after his release from a Panama City, Florida, jail. Gideon was wrongly charged in 1961 with burglary and sentenced to five years in prison. He filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that his constitutional right to liberty was denied when Florida refused him an attorney. A unanimous Supreme Court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with "the guiding hand of counsel" to ensure a fair trial for the accused. But in many states, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all. (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - This Aug. 6, 1963, file photo shows Clarence Earl Gideon, 52, the mechanic who changed the course of legal history, after his release from a Panama City, Florida, jail. Gideon was wrongly charged in 1961 with burglary and sentenced to five years in prison. He filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that his constitutional right to liberty was denied when Florida refused him an attorney. A unanimous Supreme Court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with "the guiding hand of counsel" to ensure a fair trial for the accused. But in many states, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all. (AP Photo, File)

  • FILE – In this Feb. 27, 2013, file photo people wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Half a century ago in a landmark decision, Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one. But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

    FILE – In this Feb. 27, 2013, file photo people wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Half a century ago in a landmark decision, Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one. But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

  • FILE -  This Aug. 6, 1963, file photo shows Clarence Earl Gideon, 52, the mechanic who changed the course of legal history, after his release from a Panama City, Florida, jail. Gideon was wrongly charged in 1961 with burglary and sentenced to five years in prison. He filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that his constitutional right to liberty was denied when Florida refused him an attorney. A unanimous Supreme Court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with "the guiding hand of counsel" to ensure a fair trial for the accused. But in many states, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all. (AP Photo, File)
  • FILE – In this Feb. 27, 2013, file photo people wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Half a century ago in a landmark decision, Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one. But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

It is not the happiest of birthdays for the landmark Supreme Court decision that, a half-century ago, guaranteed a lawyer for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one.

A unanimous high court issued its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 1963, declaring that states have an obligation to provide defendants with “the guiding hand of counsel” to ensure a fair trial for the accused.

But in many states today, taxpayer-funded public defenders face crushing caseloads, the quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all.

“There is no denying that much, much needs to be done,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday at a Justice Department event to commemorate the anniversary.

Clarence Earl Gideon had been in and out of jail in his nearly 51 years when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing wine and some money from vending machines at a Panama City, Fla., pool hall in 1961. Gideon asked the judge for a lawyer before his trial but was turned down. At the time, Florida only provided lawyers for indigent defendants in capital cases.

A jury soon convicted Gideon and the state Supreme Court upheld the verdict on appeal. Then, from his Florida prison cell, Gideon scratched out his Supreme Court appeal in pencil on prison stationery. It arrived at the court early in 1962, when the justices were looking for a good case to take on the issue of indigent defense. The court appointed Washington lawyer Abe Fortas, a future justice, to represent him.

Just two months after hearing arguments, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the court that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

Five months later, Gideon got a lawyer and a new trial, and the attorney poked holes in the prosecution’s case. A jury quickly returned its verdict: not guilty.

So that was the promise of Gideon – that a competent lawyer for the defense would stand on an equal footing with prosecutors, and that justice would prevail, at least in theory.

A half-century later, there are parts of the country where “it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy, also a former prosecutor, said court-appointed lawyers often are underpaid and can be “inexperienced, inept, uninterested or worse.”

Regardless of guilt or innocence, few of those accused of crimes are rich, while 80 percent say they are too poor to afford a lawyer.

People who work in the criminal justice system have become numb to the problems, creating a culture of low expectations, said Jonathan Rapping, a veteran public defender who has worked in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New Orleans.

Rapping remembers walking into a courtroom in New Orleans for the first time for a client’s initial appearance before a judge. Several defendants in jump suits were shackled together in one part of the courtroom. The judge moved briskly through charges against each of the men, with a lawyer speaking up for each one.

Then he called a name and there was no lawyer present. The defendant piped up. “The guy said he hadn’t seen a lawyer since he was locked up 70 days ago. And no one in the courtroom was shocked. No one was surprised,” Rapping said.

Complaints about the quality of representation also are difficult to sustain, under a high bar that the Supreme Court set in a 1984 case. The relatively few cases in which a lawyer’s work is deemed so bad that it violates his client’s rights typically have an outlandish set of facts that would be funny if the consequences weren’t tragic.

“You see too many instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, too many instances where you think, ‘Was this lawyer crazy?’ ” Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said at the Justice Department event.

She recounted a case from last term in which a lawyer advised his client to reject a plea deal with a seven-year prison term and go to trial. The lawyer said prosecutors could not prove a charge of intent to murder because the victim had been shot below the waist. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Kagan was part of the 5-4 decision in the defendant’s favor.

In some places, lawyers are overwhelmed by their caseloads. A public defender in Indianapolis lasted less than a year in his job after being asked to represent more than 300 defendants at a time, said Norman Lefstein, former dean of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

“A lawyer with an S on his chest for Superman couldn’t represent these people. He simply couldn’t do it.”

Unfunded mandate

Heralded for its powerful statement about the right to a lawyer, the Gideon decision also left states on their own to pay for the provision of counsel, Lefstein said. “It came as an unfunded mandate to 50 state governments and that problem endures.”

Eighteen states, including California, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, leave the funding of indigent defense entirely to their counties, said Rhoda Billings, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Those states “have a significant disparity in the appointment of counsel” from one county to the next, Billings said.

Public defenders in those counties often report to elected officials or their appointees, rather than independent boards that are insulated from politics. But even programs run at the statewide level are not free of political influence, Billings said.

Politicians do not like asking voters for money for indigent defense, and, Rapping said, the lack of independence raises questions about whether decisions are being made in the best interests of clients.

Holder has shown a commitment to the issue. The department also has sent a few million dollars to defense programs across the country. He announced nearly $2 million in new grants Friday.

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