Indigent Defense

  • April 19, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Robert M. A. Johnson,  Former President of the National District Attorneys Association; Member, American Bar Association and Former Chair of the Criminal Justice Section.

    Under our adversarial system of justice, it is only fair that poor people accused of crimes have access to their own independent experts, just like people charged with crimes who can afford experts.

    But lawyers for James McWilliams had no access to an independent expert at the Alabama trial in which he was sentenced to death. An expert was indispensable because the lawyers received a complex psychological report and volumes of records within the two days before his sentencing hearing – some even arriving on the day of the hearing. Without consulting with a mental health expert, the lawyers could not possibly review and understand the report and records and present evidence regarding Mr. McWilliams’s mental impairments.

    This should not have happened because the Supreme Court decided – more than 30 years ago in Ake v. Oklahoma – that a poor capital defendant is entitled to meaningful expert assistance for the “evaluation, preparation, and presentation of his defense.”

    On April 24, the Supreme Court will hold oral argument in Mr. McWilliams’s case, McWilliams v. Dunn, to determine whether an indigent capital defendant’s right to a mental health expert, upon a reasonable showing of need, encompasses the right to an independent expert who assists the defense, as opposed to an expert who is shared with the prosecution.

  • December 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. His first book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, was published by Harvard University Press in 2009, and his most recent book, Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations, was published in 2014.

    Can lawyers stop their own client from challenging his death sentence? Apparently, in Texas, they can. A lawyer’s most fundamental professional obligation is to “zealously” advocate for the client and uphold “justice.” Lawyers cannot give up working on a case, or put their own interests above their client’s. And yet that is what two Texas lawyers appear to have done to death row clients they were appointed to represent.

    Raphael Holiday was just executed in Texas. His two court-appointed lawyers told him that they would no longer contest his execution. “This marks the end of work for your appeals,” they said. They then told Holiday they would not seek clemency from the governor, despite a federal law requiring them to honor the client’s desire to do just that. Facing imminent execution, Holiday told the court, “They have refused to help me and it is a disheartening conundrum I am not fit to comprehend.”

    Holiday, who lacked money to hire his own lawyer, asked for the court to appoint a new one. The lawyers who said they were “not going to file further appeals” for him opposed his request, essentially telling the court that their client had nothing but frivolous claims left. The court-appointed lawyers simply gave up on Holiday’s case, even though half of 2015 Texas executions have been stayed or withdrawn, often because lawyers discovered compelling issues as the execution date approached. Based on the appointed lawyers’ representations, the court refused to assign a new lawyer to the case. Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, commented that it was “unconscionable” to prevent Holiday from getting new lawyers and that death penalty lawyers representing clients facing imminent executions “have a duty to make every legal argument they can.”

  • October 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sheila Bedi, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law; attorney, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic

    Prisons and jails are a revolving door of brutality where people held behind bars experience horrific abuse funded by taxpayers and meted out at the hands of the state. My practice is dedicated almost exclusively toworking with and for men, women and children who live behind bars, and most of the cases I’ve filed have to do with prison and jail conditions.

    The facts of some of my cases speak for themselves. A juvenile prison in Mississippi was notorious for subjecting the young women there to sexual abuse, and in the wake of a particularly horrific incident during which correctional officers sexually abused girls who were then left shackled together for over a month, the prison was permanently closed. In downstate Illinois, a young man whose only offense was a first-time drug possession endured over 12 hours of brutal rape. He joined the over 200,000 people who survive sexual abuse in our nation’s prisons. Another case involved a private prison company that raked in over $100 million in profits while subjecting men to abusive conditions. There, some prison staff exploited the youth by selling drugs inside the facility, and youths who were handcuffed and defenseless were kicked, punched and beaten. Other youths were stripped naked and held in isolation for weeks at a time. Young men with serious health needs languished without medical care, sometimes risking death or permanent injury. A federal court found that these conditions resulted in “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts . . . The sum of these actions and inactions . . . paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

    My work is about transforming—and hopefully dismantling—the criminal injustice system and enforcing the constitutional rights of people who live in the shadows. The challenge is to help the courts understand and reckon with the humanity of the 2.2 million men, women and children this country holds behinds bars. One of the ways that happens is when lawyers recognize the agency, courage and resilience of their clients. I am humbled and often awestruck by the courage of my clients, and the fact that they are willing to trust me with the truth of what they endure behind bars is an incredible privilege. Most of my cases are class actions seeking only injunctive relief. That means my clients aren’t getting any money from being involved in this work and instead put themselves at great risk of retaliation by speaking up and telling their stories to the court, all to ensure that others are protected from the abuses they endure.

  • July 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Theo Shaw, a William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholar, University of Washington School of Law; and one of the young students charged in the “Jena 6” case. Follow him on Twitter @theorshaw

    Glenn Ford, imprisoned nearly half his life for a murder he didn’t commit, died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer. Socially, though, he died 30 years ago – in part because of our nation’s underfunded public defender systems and prosecutorial misconduct, and lack of accountability.

    As an intern for the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) in 2010, I worked on multiple cases where prosecutorial misconduct and lawyers’ ineffectiveness resulted in wrongful convictions. Some of our clients received ineffective legal representation because our nation’s public defender systems are so terribly underfunded lawyers are compelled to represent more people than is ethically possible, which increases the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

    Compounding those injustices are government abuses of power. During Ford’s initial trial, prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to his defense. Disturbingly, Ford’s nightmare isn’t unique. During my summer with the IPNO, I befriended John Thompson. He spent 18 years in prison—14 of those years on death row—for a crime he didn’t commit. In his case, prosecutors also withheld evidence favorable to his defense; and the gross injustice of government abuse is a reality for many more defendants.

    After his release, Ford filed a petition seeking compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Ford's request was denied because, according to District Judge Katherine Dorroh, he failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was factually innocent. This is clear for me: a criminal justice system built on the principle of Equal Justice Under Law should require more – for justice and fairness.

    For our society to banish these injustices it must face reality and take action. 

    In our juvenile and criminal justice systems, race and poverty significantly determines outcome. In fact, there are important cause and effect relations between race and poverty. It’s undeniable and ethically inexcusable that for indigent and racial minorities in our justice systems, both historically and within our contemporary society, the right to counsel is violated almost daily.

    As a prospective public interest lawyer, I am strongly committed and passionate about the right to competent legal representation and equal justice for indigent people, racial minorities, juvenile offenders, condemned prisoners, and those wrongly convicted in our legal system. This means I am just as committed to fighting systemic poverty, challenging racial discrimination in our criminal justice system, and ending human rights abuses in our juvenile and adult detention facilities, practices such as solitary confinement, guard abuse, and degrading conditions of confinement.

    My vision and hope for a just society is also fueled by a deeply held universal concern (across race) for all persons who have had or will have their constitutional rights violated. Hence, I am committed to using my knowledge (legal and otherwise) to be a powerful and compassionate voice for every person accused of a crime. In this way I hope to help this country realize the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright

     

     

  • June 23, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    As Stephen Bright provided closing remarks at the 2015 ACS National Convention, he extoled the virtue of representing unpopular clients ‒ particularly criminal defendants, who are usually poor and often people of color.  He listed the names of inmates who have been wrongfully convicted and recently released from prison, all unwitting members of a far-too-large society of American exonerees:  Willie Manning in Mississippi, Anthony Ray Hinton in Alabama, Alfred Brown in Texas, and Glenn Ford in Louisiana.  But Bright also delighted the crowd by introducing a special guest: exoneree and recent law school graduate Jarrett Adams.

    Adams served almost 10 years of a 28-year prison sentence for a crime that he did not commit.  After being exonerated with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he obtained a degree in criminal justice and then attended law school at Loyola University Chicago.  He has worked at the Federal Defender’s Office in Chicago and at the public interest law firm Loevy & Loevy, and soon he will begin a dual fellowship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ‒ the very court that overturned his conviction and set him free.

    At the convention, Adams sat down with ACS to explain why it’s so important for law students to develop professional networks.  He said, “There are only so many big firms, and if you don’t . . . get a 4.0 or know someone . . . you don’t have the opportunity to summer with them and to get into the door.  ACS offers you the opportunity to network with the big law firms at events like this.”  He added, “You never know when you’re going to be in a networking event and meet someone that’s going to help you become someone.”

    Arguably, Adams – who hopes to practice civil rights law and continue leading the nonprofit organization he co-founded, Life After Justice – is already “someone.”  But, as he would probably agree, there is always room for growth and advancement.

    Adams’ entire interview can be viewed below.