Attorney Ronald Yengich believes Americans are cowards when it comes to defending the rights of even the most reprehensible members of society: its killers.
Many death row inmates don't have attorneys, which is where Yengich and the other three lawyers that comprise his Rocky Mountain Defense Fund see their duty.In stepping between a well-oiled government intent on execution and a condemned convict who might be innocent, they believe they are acting out of respect for an ideal that places the value of human life above attorneys' fees.
To Sherron King, it's more like dancing with the devil.
"How can they justify what they're doing?" asks King, whose daughter's killer just had his case taken on by Yengich for free. "I think they've sold their souls."
John Albert Taylor, sentenced to die June 23 for the murder of Charla Nichole King, isn't the first to benefit from the fund's anti-death-penalty zeal.
Fund associate D. Gilbert Athay's defense of Hi-Fi killer Pierre Dale Selby through 14 years of appeals was the impetus for the loosely knit group of defense lawyers, who act as a clearinghouse for information on capital cases in Utah and surrounding states.
"It's just understood that in our opposition to the death penalty, it is our commitment to help anyone and everyone who calls on us to do it as best we can," Athay said.
Selby, convicted in the torture-slayings of three people during a 1974 robbery at an Ogden stereo shop, was executed in 1987. Athay solicited Yengich and a few other attorneys to help in a flurry of last-minute appeals fought by no less than a dozen attorneys at the Utah attorney general's office.
That experience convinced them no defense attorney should have to face such odds alone. Thus was born the defense fund - which Athay says is something of a misnomer. "We never really intended to have any money," he said.
Which is good, said Yengich, since the non-profit fund contains "about 73 dollars."
"You can't even say we're operating on a shoestring, because we don't have a shoe," Yengich quipped. "But our hearts are good and pure and we believe that eventually the death penalty in America will be set aside."
Athay estimates he donated about $250,000 in fees and out-of-pocket expenses in Selby's case. Under Utah law, attorneys are paid to represent indigent clients in capital cases only through the first round of appeals in state court.
Some death row inmates wind up representing themselves. Others have attorneys appointed by the courts to take cases "pro bono," or without compensation. Some have no lawyer.
Karema Wicks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund in New York said an estimated 15 percent of death row inmates have no legal representation.
That can leave the system open to mistakes, which is why some prosecutors, while often appalled at a system that allows capital appeals to drag on for decades, grudgingly appreciate anti-death penalty organizations like the Rocky Mountain Defense Fund.
"If anything, I have to say these groups have served to frame legal issues . . . and brought the quality of litigation up several notches," said Earl Dorius, who handled capital appeals for the attorney general's office for more than a decade.
"I know it's hard for the public to understand this, but these groups might actually save time in the appeals process," Dorius said. "At some point, defendants always argue ineffective counsel. I've always been of the view that, especially at trial level, we would prefer there be skilled, highly competent lawyers."
Fund lawyers are currently involved in the defense of three Utah death row inmates. In addition to his defense of Taylor, Yengich also is assisting lawyer Greg Sanders in defense of Joseph Mitchell Parsons. Fund associate Loni F. DeLand has taken the appeal for Elroy Tillman.
Sanders, a former prosecutor appointed to Parson's appeal, said Yengich's assistance has been a "godsend."
None of this matters much to Sherron King, who can't understand why anyone would come to the aid of the man convicted of killing her daughter.
"I'm really upset about it," she said. "What if it was their child? My baby had just as much a right to live as John Albert Taylor.
"I believe these kind of lawyers, when one of their clients gets out and kills again, the blood's on their hands too," King said.
Yengich, however, said the reason the fund was set up in the first place was to challenge a legal system he believes is geared toward depriving society's condemned of what few rights they have left. He points to recent efforts by Congress and the Bush administration to further curtail habeas corpus appeals at the federal level.
It was the 17th century French philosopher Voltaire who wrote that it is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one, Yengich said.
"Those of us here in the land of the free and the home of the brave are not brave enough to understand that even people on death row deserve a defense," he said. "If he were alive today, Voltaire would puke."
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