Hire a Lawyer, Escape the Death Penalty?

Author(s): 
Scott Phillips
Publication Date: 
February 23, 2010

ACS is pleased to distribute an Issue Brief by Scott Phillips, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver, entitled “Hire A Lawyer, Escape the Death Penalty?” In this Issue Brief, Professor Phillips describes the results of his study to test the claim made by death penalty opponents that wealthy defendants who hire legal counsel are exempt from capital punishment. His research focuses on Houston, Texas, and surrounding Harris County, which is the county with the largest number of executions in the United States and is the largest jurisdiction that uses court-appointed lawyers to represent defendants who cannot afford an attorney, although the county is currently considering the creation of a public defender. The data for the study include the 504 adult defendants indicted for capital murder in Harris County from 1992 to 1999, and represent all of the relevant cases from this time period. Professor Phillips compares the outcomes in cases where the defendant hired a lawyer with cases where the defendant had a court-appointed lawyer and finds that, “[h]iring counsel for the entire case not only eliminates the chance of death, but also dramatically increases the chance of an acquittal.” He also finds that “[h]iring counsel for a portion of the case substantially reduces the chance of death,” and “hiring counsel did not appear to be the province of the wealthy because virtually all capital defendants seem to be poor.”

Professor Phillips argues that these dramatic findings “are not an indictment of appointed attorneys, but rather an indictment of the structural deficiencies inherent in the appointment method of indigent defense.” He discusses these deficiencies and reform efforts in Texas aimed at addressing them. He believes that the reform efforts have not succeeded, however, and argues that “the solution is to create a public defender office, including a capital defender unit, in Houston that is responsible for all indigent cases. The public defender must be funded at a level proportionate to the DA’s office.” He acknowledges that, “[t]he hybrid plan currently being considered [that would use both a public defender and appointed attorneys] represents genuine progress and is a laudable step in the right direction,” but concludes by asserting that “Houston’s distinction as the capital of capital punishment creates a special obligation to provide the most rigorous system of indigent defense possible. Only a top-notch public defender can meet such a standard.”

This Issue Brief has been updated by the author with additional information since it was originally published on February 23, 2010.

Professor Phillips previously wrote an ACS Issue Brief entitled, “Racial Disparities in Capital Punishment: Blind Justice Requires a Blindfold.” His first issue brief described research he conducted on race and capital punishment in Harris County.