Can a poor American get a fair trial?

Published: Thursday, March 28 2013 10:15 a.m. MDT

Defendant Colton Louder and public defender Lisa Crawford sit in front of Judge Fred Howard at the 4th District Judicial Court, Tuesday, Nov.17, 2009. Louder was charged with the murder of his uncle, Jeffery Ackerman, in Pleasant Grove on Feb. 27, 2009. Some argue there is a systematic failure to provide constitutionally required legal counsel for poor defendants in the United States.

Patrick Smith

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In 1993 Christopher Lee Price was convicted of the robbery-murder of Alabama minister William Lynn. For his crime Price was sentence to death by lethal injection.

For the last 20 years a team lead by Washington, D.C., lawyer Douglas Hallward-Driemeier has been navigating the legal system with the goal of overturning the punishment decreed for Price. Years of work came to an end earlier this month when the Supreme Court announced it would not be reviewing the case.

The team does not dispute that Price is guilty. The issue is whether Price was adequately represented during sentencing by his court-appointed public defender. Hallward-Driemeier asserts that Price's constitutional right to legal counsel was violated when his attorney failed to provide the court details about Price’s background, his history as a victim of child abuse and his mental health problems. This information could have led to a reduced sentence.

The timing of the Court’s decision is ironic. It came just two weeks before the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which affirmed the right to adequate counsel regardless of ability to pay. Price’s appeal stated that he received inadequate representation because he couldn’t afford a decent lawyer.

Price’s supporters argue his case represents a systematic failure to provide constitutionally-required legal counsel for poor defendants. Legal scholars and judges bemoan the lack of equity in the system.

“For those who can afford legal services, we have a top-notch judicial system,” said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson in a recent speech on the anniversary of Gideon. “A larger swath of litigation exists in which contestants lack wealth, insurance is absent and public funding is not available. Some of our most essential rights — those involving families, homes and livelihoods — are the least protected."

The driving factor behind this injustice is the fact that American incarceration rates have increased by 800 percent in the last 40 years, says Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Many of those brought to court are poor and states have not proportionately increased funding for legal defense.

Even in states where there is money for public defense programs, the salaries are so low compared to prosecutors and private defense attorneys that many young law school graduates say they can’t afford to do the work. Scholars, judges and lawyers agree that new ways to provide legal defense to the poor are needed. It’s the only way to see the promise of Gideon fulfilled, Bright says.


The problem isn’t that public defenders don’t want to provide the best defense for their clients; in many cases, they simply don’t have the resources to do it. “Across the country ... indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a February speech at the American Bar Association’s National Summit on Indigent Defense. “When legal representation is available to the poor, it is rendered less effective by insufficient resources [and] overwhelming caseloads."

Public defenders can carry as many as 500 active felony cases at a time and as many as 2,225 misdemeanor cases, according to a 2009 report by the Constitution Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank. The American Bar Association recommends caseloads of no more than 150 active felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases.

Caseloads like those documented by the Constitution Project aren’t atypical, said Josh Hayne, an attorney who worked for two years as a public defender in Massachusetts. As a young lawyer he had 400 to 1,000 cases at any given time. When asked if his clients received good representation Hayne doesn’t hesitate: “We could do more for [clients] if we had fewer cases. When it comes down to it, you always feel like there were more things you should have done.”

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