Inadequate Legal Counsel a Key Concern in Death Penalty Cases

Posted by Erica Sanders, Guest Blogger on September 30th, 2010

As the multitude of problems with our capital punishment system become increasingly apparent, one stands out to be particularly troubling. Inmates without the financial means to hire a private attorney are statistically much more likely to be sentenced to death than their wealthier counterparts. Those who cannot afford a private attorney are constitutionally entitled to a court-appointed public defender. Unfortunately, such attorneys are often overworked and lack the time, skills and experience necessary to properly defend their clients. As a result, research indicates that a gross socio-economic disparity in death penalty sentencing has arisen.

The statistical evidence is overwhelming. An examination of 461 capital cases by The Dallas Morning News found that nearly one in four condemned inmates has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. Similarly, in Washington State, one-fifth of the 84 people who have faced execution in the past 20 years were represented by lawyers who had been, or were later, disbarred, suspended or arrested. In some cases, court appointed defense attorneys have slept through trials and even appeared to court under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Highlighting concerns about inadequate legal representation is the case of Kentucky inmate Gregory Wilson, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of the murder of Kentucky woman Deborah Pooley. Wilson was only grated $2,500 for legal defense. Two lawyers volunteered to defend him; one had no experience with felony cases and the other gave the number to a local bar as his office phone. Wilson’s lawyers were often not present for trials, during which time he was forced to represent himself.

Yet another case demonstrating the damage done by poor counsel is the case of 50 year old British born citizen Linda Carty, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of ordering her neighbor's murder. As a British citizen, Carty was entitled to request legal representation from the British government. However, Carty was never informed by her lawyer of her right to do so. It was only after her sentencing that the British government became aware of her case and has since filed an amicus brief stating that if they had been notified, all efforts would have been made to provide Carty with effective legal counsel. Also troubling is that throughout the duration of the trial, Carty’s lawyer only met with her once, for 15 minutes, to discuss the case.

The relationship between inadequate counsel and death penalty sentencing underscores the systemic nature of injustice. In the United States, poverty disproportionately affects people of color. Therefore minorities who face trial for murder are disproportionately sentenced to death in part due to their inability to hire a private attorney. African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 53% of the death row population although they constitute less than 30% of the general populous.
Ultimately, the measures in place to defend those facing capital punishment are flawed to say the least.

We are in desperate need of a system in which punishment is determined by severity of crime, not social privilege.

Posted in Blog, Race, Sentencing


Comments are now closed for this item.

  1. Comment by Zach, Oct 1st, 2010 3:13pm

    Great article. This injustice makes me sick.


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