Underfunded Public Defenders and Prosecutorial Misconduct: A Personal Mission

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