January 21, 2007
Report: Defense lawyers are failing their clients
By STEPHEN HENDERSON, McClatchy Newspapers
The jurors heard all about the convenience store holdup, the gunshots and
the dead clerk. Their unanimous verdict came swiftly: Warren King was guilty
of a senseless murder that shocked rural Appling County, Ga.
A death sentence almost certainly would be next, unless King's attorney
could persuade the jury to spare his life.
But G. Terry Jackson, King's state-appointed lawyer, didn't do much.
With little money to unearth details about his client's past, Jackson did
not chronicle the mitigating circumstances that could have helped his
client's cause. The jury learned almost nothing about King's low IQ, his
childhood in a log cabin with no plumbing or electricity, the savage
beatings he took from his alcoholic parents or the succession of foster
homes he shuttled through.
In desperation, Jackson turned to Jesus.
"WWJD," he said, invoking the popular bumper-sticker phrase "What Would
Jesus Do?" Jackson told jurors to keep those four letters in mind as they
weighed King's future.
A stunned prosecutor objected. The judge told the jury to ignore the
The jurors deliberated for 90 minutes and returned with their sentence:
Now King sits on death row in Georgia, one of many inmates whose attorneys,
at the crucial point when jurors decide between life and death, made only
feeble, incomplete or tragically laughable efforts to defend them.
A broad review by McClatchy Newspapers of recent death-penalty cases in
Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia provides, for the first time, an
assessment of how commonplace these failures are.
McClatchy reviewed trial transcripts and appeal records and interviewed
lawyers for 80 men and women who were sentenced to death from 1997 through
2004 in those four states. The review found that:
In 73 of the 80 cases, defense lawyers gave jurors little or no evidence to
help them decide whether the accused should live or die. The lawyers
routinely missed myriad issues of abuse and mental deficiency, abject
poverty and serious psychological problems.
By failing to investigate their clients' histories, lawyers in these 73
cases fell far short of the 20-year-old professional standards set by the
American Bar Association. Their performances also appear inconsistent with
standards that the U.S. Supreme Court has mandated several times.
Appeals courts for the most part have ducked those Supreme Court directives
about the importance of quality defense counsel. So far, only two of the 80
death sentences have been overturned for bad representation.
In 11 of the cases, the defendants have been executed. Their cases moved
through the appeals process without a single judge flagging lapses in the
defense lawyers' performances.
In Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi, this poor legal representation is a
result of official policy. The states pay no more than a pittance to help
lawyers defend their clients, and none requires that well-trained lawyers
handle death-penalty cases.
Georgia had a similarly inadequate system until 2005, when a publicly
funded, statewide capital defenders office began spending whatever is
necessary to scour clients' backgrounds for mitigating evidence. So far,
none of that office's 46 clients has been sentenced to death.
Source : McClatchy Newspapers