Condemned should know that justice was served
Austin American-Statesman, Editorial
A series of articles in the American-Statesman last fall illustrated the
shockingly poor work by some court-appointed lawyers representing death row
inmates appealing their convictions.
From the first steps after a defendant is convicted of capital murder and
sentenced to death, the process is broken. If they are indigent, as most
are, their appeals fall to a court-appointed attorney selected from a list
of lawyers maintained by the state Court of Criminal Appeals. Studies show
that one-third of the condemned inmates had incompetent appeals counsel.
The State Bar of Texas knows many of those appeals lawyers are not up to the
job of representing someone facing death, but says it doesn't have the
resources to evaluate the abilities of the lawyers on the list. Worse, the
Court of Criminal Appeals generally accepts even the sloppiest work as
adequate for condemned inmates.
It's a system that needs to be scuttled and replaced with one providing
adequate defense for indigents facing execution. Senate Bill 1655 by Sens.
Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is a good effort to
repair a broken system.
Their bill would create a committee to set standards for attorneys filing
writs for condemned inmates and establish the Office of Capital Writs to
represent indigent defendants applying for writs of habeas corpus. Those
writs are where inmates raise issues of new evidence, prosecutorial
misconduct or ineffective defense. It is often the last hope for condemned
In their statement of intent accompanying SB 1655, Duncan and Ellis wrote,
"The performance of Texas capital habeas lawyers is neither regulated nor
monitored by any court or government agency. Thus, if the habeas
representation amounts to the functional equivalent of a lawyer sleeping
through the trial, the lawyer is nonetheless reappointed to more cases and
the death-sentenced inmate has no remedy or recourse."
Last fall, American-Statesman writer Chuck Lindell found that some appellate
lawyers did little or no investigation, filed appeals copied from previous,
unrelated cases and filed claims that had been repeatedly denied as grounds
An Office of Capital Writs would help solve that problem with a staff of
qualified, competent attorneys to represent indigent capital murder
defendants in their habeas writs. A fiscal note accompanying the bill calls
for only 4.5 new employees for the office, a number that seems way too low
for such important work.
But it's a good start. The bill also provides that when a staff attorney is
unavailable or can't take a case for other reasons, only competent,
experienced outside counsel would be hired and paid to represent the inmate.
The current list of lawyers, Ellis and Duncan noted, includes those who have
been accused of neglecting clients, have no experience with capital murder
cases, have no experience in habeas corpus writs, have mental illness or
abandoned their death row clients.
Even the most ardent supporter of capital punishment should expect a
defendant to be guaranteed competent counsel. A good appeal lawyer not only
protects the innocent but assures that those who are on death row belong
The senate bill would be a huge improvement in the administration of justice
in the most serious cases, those where a life is on the line. Lawmakers
should pass this bill and Gov. Rick Perry should sign it into law.
Like mercy, the quality of justice should not be constrained.
Source : Austin American-Statesman, Editorial