HOW GOOD A DEFENSE SHOULD
A SUSPECT GET?
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From: Christy 
To: Inmate Advocates 
Sent: Friday, May 02, 2003 11:31 PM
Subject: [patrickcrusade] How good a defense should a suspect get?

How good a defense should a suspect get?
 Tue Apr 29, 7:17 AM 
 

Kevin Johnson USA TODAY

MARKS, Miss. -- Manuel Killebrew is the top elected official here in Quitman County, but at least twice a year he won't go anywhere near the courthouse square. 

Those are the days when a battered bus arrives to pick up recently convicted felons and haul them to Mississippi state prisons. Killebrew, president of Quitman's Board of Supervisors, says he's too ashamed to watch. He worries that some of the inmates might have been wrongly convicted because the local government didn't make sure they had adequate lawyers. 

''My greatest fear,'' he says, ''is that we are sending innocent people to prison for a long, long time. It bothers me a lot.''

Killebrew's concern is reflected in what legal analysts say is an extraordinary lawsuit, set for trial today, in which Quitman County accuses the state of abandoning its duty to provide basic legal assistance to indigent criminal defendants in one of the nation's poorest counties.

The Quitman case is being watched by state and local officials nationwide. It raises questions that have vexed state and local governments in the 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites) ruled that lawyers must be provided to low-income defendants to ensure fair trials: How good must the lawyers be? How much should the government spend? And who, exactly, should pay for an accused criminal's defense?

The case also symbolizes widespread problems in the nation's public-defender system at a time when the quality of such lawyers' work is driving debates over whether the death penalty is applied fairly.

In their lawsuit, Quitman officials outline a pattern of neglect by the county's own public defenders, a problem they say is fueled by increasing disparities in funding for state prosecutors and local public defenders. The result, Quitman officials say, is a justice system in which many defendants are herded through court by harried, underpaid defense attorneys who have little time or resources to spend on each case.

In interviews and in court papers, Quitman officials, defense lawyers and their clients describe a range of problems they say undermines the local justice system:

* A review of criminal cases filed in the past 10 years indicated that no local public defenders ever asked judges for money to hire investigators to help the defense.

* In more than 300 Quitman criminal cases reviewed by county attorneys since 1995, nearly 60% of the felony defendants pleaded guilty during their first court appearance -- often within minutes of being introduced to their court-appointed lawyers. In many cases, county officials say, defendants were urged to accept deals before discussing any evidence.

* Only once during the past eight years, court papers say, has a public defender in Quitman asked the county to pay an expert to assist in a defendant's case.

In Quitman, a financially strapped county of about 10,000 people in northwest Mississippi, the median household income is about $20,000 a year. That's less than half the national average.

Quitman spends about $32,000 a year on two part-time public defenders and hasn't increased the defenders' budget in a decade, a period in which the state has steadily increased staffing and funding for prosecutors. During that time, Mississippi has spent more than $16 million to prosecute felony cases, compared with about $9 million the state's 82 counties have spent on public defenders, according to the Mississippi Public Defenders Task Force.

Jurisdictions across the nation typically spend more on prosecuting cases than on court-appointed attorneys, but officials here say the disparity in some Mississippi counties is jarring.

''In every criminal case (in Quitman), it's like fielding a high school team to play the Green Bay Packers,'' says Butch Scipper, the county's chief clerk. ''I'm not saying all our defendants are innocent. What we need is some equity.''

'It took about 10 minutes'

It's unclear how many people, if any, might have been wrongly convicted in Quitman because of problems with public defenders. But legal analysts and civil-rights activists say there is ample anecdotal evidence pointing to a breakdown in the justice system here and across Mississippi.

  The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reviewed more than 150 criminal cases from Quitman and 10 other counties during the past two decades and found that  ''Mississippi continues to ignore its mandate to provide constitutionally adequate counsel for the poor.''

State officials declined to comment on the Quitman lawsuit. But in court papers filed by the Mississippi Attorney General's Office, they say local governments are responsible for public-defender offices. They say local courts, not the state, should decide whether defendants are entitled to publicly funded experts and investigators.

Critics of the state's hands-off approach point to several recent cases that raised questions about the fairness of trials involving court-appointed lawyers.

The NAACP fund cited the case of Walter Williams, who was arrested and charged with murder in January 1998. A public defender was not appointed to represent him until the day of his arraignment -- more than eight months after the arrest.

Court papers say the attorney, Thomas Pearson, told Williams to investigate his own case and to obtain statements from potential witnesses while he was free on bond. Williams eventually was convicted. He's serving a life sentence at the state prison in Parchman and maintains that he is innocent.

Kenny Jamison, 37, a welder who was arrested last year on a burglary charge, says he first met with a public defender six months after he was arrested. ''He didn't ask no questions,'' Jamison recalls. ''He said there was a (plea) deal. It took about 10 minutes; I got four years'' in jail.

Jamison, who is in the Quitman County jail, doesn't deny his involvement in the burglary. But he says, ''I was on drugs at the time and needed help.''

If Quitman officials get what they want -- a state-supported public-defender office -- Mississippi could be forced to act on a dormant plan to create a regional network of full-time public defenders.

Such a decision could cause ripples across the nation. In 24 other states, local governments that have to pay all or part of the costs of public-defender offices are grappling with problems similar to those in Mississippi. In Pennsylvania, Utah and South Dakota -- where counties run their own public-defender offices -- the result has been a crazy-quilt network of programs in which local economic conditions often dictate the quality of legal assistance for low-income defendants.

The Quitman case ''is a legitimate challenge'' to such situations, says Robert Spangenberg, whose consulting firm in Massachusetts has studied indigent defense programs. ''I don't know how more serious these conditions can be.''

No Clarence Darrow

Pearson, 73, who has retired from court-appointed work, says he is mostly proud of his service as one of Quitman County's part-time defenders. But he has doubts about some of the work he did during the past decade.

The self-described ''country lawyer'' acknowledges that he never hired an investigator to review any of the hundreds of cases he handled. Pearson's private practice in nearby Clarksdale and other part-time defender contracts in nearby Coahoma and Tunica counties left him little time to conduct his own investigations in Quitman, which paid him and another defender about $1,350 a month each.

The money was expected to cover all defense expenses, including investigations, court appearances, out-of-court consultations and office costs. During the past three years, Quitman's public defenders represented nearly 100 people accused of violent crimes and other felonies.

Pearson has told Quitman officials that he rarely had time to talk with defendants individually. Instead, Pearson says he often gathered defendants in groups to prepare for what normally are confidential plea negotiations.

''There's no doubt in my mind there are innocent people at the penitentiary right now,'' he says. ''If you're asking whether I could have contributed to that situation, it's possible. Frequently, we did not know the facts behind the case'' before entering a guilty plea.

''If I had been more graciously paid, I could have devoted more time'' to each case. ''But I do not personally think (low-income defendants) are entitled to Clarence Darrow,'' Pearson says, referring to the legendary defender of the poor during the early 1900s. ''They are entitled to a country lawyer, and they got a country lawyer.''

Attorneys for Quitman say Pearson's blunt assessment goes to the heart of what will be a key issue at trial: Whether part-time public defenders who have private practices -- with clients who pay by the hour -- give enough attention to their indigent clients.

Quitman, like most Mississippi counties, allows public defenders to boost their incomes by taking on paying clients. Such a lawyer ''will always have a monetary interest in neglecting his public-defender cases so that he can spend more time on his paying clients,'' says Robert McDuff, one of Quitman's lead trial attorneys.

Yale law professor Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, has helped organize challenges to public-defender systems in Georgia, which he says has similar problems. Several independent reviews of Georgia's system have found that low-income defendants often spend months in jail before meeting with a lawyer for the first time.

Georgia lawmakers are considering a proposal to transfer control of indigent defense from the counties to a system of regional offices managed by the state.

Perhaps the most public battle involving the quality of court-appointed attorneys is in New York.

Gov. George Pataki wants to raise fees for court-appointed attorneys, some of whom are part-time defenders, from $40 to $75 an hour for felony cases and from $25 to $60 an hour for misdemeanors. But budget problems and disputes over how much state and local governments would contribute might stall the proposal.

The Quitman case isn't the first attempt to revamp Mississippi's public-defender system. In 1998, the Legislature approved a plan for state-funded, full-time defender offices in needy jurisdictions. But it never funded the plan.

Two years ago, the chief public defender in Hattiesburg, J.B. Van Slyke, sued the state. He alleged that the local public-defender system left him unable to provide basic representation to defendants. Swamped with hundreds of cases, Van Slyke said he often had his receptionist conduct initial interviews with the defendants.

The complaint was withdrawn when Van Slyke retired.

The upcoming Quitman trial is a sensitive topic for the two part-time defenders who work there now. One, Alan Shackelford, declined to comment. The other, David Tisdell, says the problems outlined in the lawsuit predate his work, which began two years ago.

Tisdell, a former prosecutor who also has part-time public-defense contracts in two other counties, says he meets with clients several times a month. ''My job is defending clients and that's what I do. There is no neglect.''

Scipper, who wants the state to take over Quitman's public-defender system, says defenders shouldn't be blamed for a ''broken system.''

''There is no way (indigent defendants) are getting equal representation,'' he says. ''The last thing we want to do is send somebody (to prison) by mistake. But I'm telling you, it's a real fear.''
 

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