January 21, 2007
GEORGIA PROGRAM SHOWS WHAT STRONG DEFENSE CAN ACHIEVE
By Stephen Henderson, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
Firefighters pulled four charred bodies out of the wood clapboard flophouse
on Troup Street in Valdosta, Ga., after a white-hot blaze in October 2005
left it a smoldering heap and melted windows up and down the block.
Within hours, Cynthia Allen was arrested for setting the fire and thrown in
Georgia prosecutors soon will present a jury with a very simple argument:
She did it, so she must die.
It would be an easy case if it weren't for Boyd Young and his colleagues.
They intend to make the jury's choice -- life or death -- much more
As Allen's lawyers, they've spent three months combing through the wreckage
of her life, trying to follow clues that might demystify her behavior.
What explains the vacant look in Allen's eyes, and her tendency to answer
the simplest questions with rambling incoherence? Is there more to the
stories in Valdosta that cast Allen as an aggrieved tenant of the flophouse
and a constant target of violent physical and mental abuse?
These hints point toward a dreadful existence for Allen, stretching as far
back as her childhood in a dangerous New Orleans housing project.
Chasing down those clues is taking Young and his colleagues on an arduous
and emotional journey through a world layered thick with poverty,
dysfunction and tragedy.
They've essentially become Allen's biographers, documenting every important
facet of her life and preparing to explain it -- and why it matters -- to a
This is how they'll defend her.
It's the only choice they have.
"Cynthia is just not somebody who belongs on Death Row, not even close,"
Young said. "That's what we've got to prove."
This is the new face of capital defense in Georgia.
Allen's lawyers work for the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, a
state-funded, centralized operation of well-trained lawyers and
investigators who were assembled in 2005 to handle nothing but the state's
In each case, the office assigns at least two attorneys and a full-time
investigator. One attorney is on staff in the office; the other is typically
a private practice lawyer from the town where the case is being tried.
They spend what's necessary. They do what's necessary. They work every case
as if it were their only one, no matter what.
The idea is to fulfill -- at long last -- the Supreme Court's edict that
everyone who's accused of a capital crime receives an adequate defense, in
accordance with the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
For years in Georgia, that directive fell flat in a system that forced
judges to corral whoever was available to defend the accused in
death-penalty cases, and paid lawyers in these cases whatever local counties
McClatchy Newspapers' review of 80 death penalty cases from 1997 through
2004 in Georgia and three other states reveals how inglorious that system
In 17 of the 20 Georgia cases, attorneys lacked the know-how or money -- or
both -- to present robust cases in defense of their clients, particularly at
the crucial points when juries were weighing death sentences.
In the other states -- Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi -- lawyers in 56 of
the 60 cases examined failed in the same manner, for similar reasons.
Many of the lawyers in those cases called only a few witnesses, or none at
all. They missed myriad stories of abuse, neglect and mental deficiency in
their clients' backgrounds. They had no narratives prepared to coax jurors
to see their clients as human beings, with lives that encompassed much more
than the crimes they committed.
A simple conversation with any of the capital defenders about their jobs
reveals the difference between their way and what came before.
Chris Adams, who heads the office, said their work was about expanding the
"I like to say that the prosecution asks the jury to look at the crime
through a knothole," he said. "Our job is to take down the fence, to look at
the whole life. Every person is more than their worst act. It's never just
about the crime."
Adams' lawyers are doing the work that the U.S. Supreme Court has said
defenders must do in capital cases, and they're following the guidelines
that the American Bar Association long has embraced.
They're a solution to the problems that the McClatchy review found.
With a simple number, they're also providing an answer to those who might
doubt whether that work matters, whether jurors might consider a defendant's
background in the face of a brutal crime.
Their record: 23-0.
Not one of their clients has been sentenced to death since the office
started fielding capital cases in 2005, even though the vast majority have
been found guilty of heinous murders.
"In our line of work, it's inevitable that one of our clients, someday, will
get a death sentence," Adams said. "It's bound to happen. Some jury,
somewhere, just won't see things our way. However, it won't be from lack of
effort on our part. We're not leaving anything undone."
Adams' office is funded by court fines and fees, and last year its budget
was hit hard by a decline in state collections. The office is paying less
now to the private-practice attorneys it assigns to cases, and may have to
stop using them altogether if the financial outlook doesn't improve.
Even with its troubles, the office is committed to providing each client
with what he or she needs.
Source : MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS