The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 17, 2013

Serious problems persist in indigent legal defense

(Continued)

Five months later, Gideon got a lawyer and a new trial, and the attorney poked holes in the prosecution’s case. A jury quickly returned its verdict: not guilty.

So that was the promise of Gideon — that a competent lawyer for the defense would stand on an equal footing with prosecutors, and that justice would prevail, at least in theory.

A half-century later, there are parts of the country where “it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor. Leahy said court-appointed lawyers often are underpaid and can be “inexperienced, inept, uninterested or worse.”

Regardless of guilt or innocence, few of those accused of crimes are rich, while 80 percent say they are too poor to afford a lawyer.

People who work in the criminal justice system have become numb to the problems, creating a culture of low expectations, said Jonathan Rapping, a veteran public defender who has worked in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New Orleans.

Rapping remembers walking into a courtroom in New Orleans for the first time for a client’s initial appearance before a judge. Several defendants in jump suits were shackled together in one part of the courtroom. The judge moved briskly through charges against each of the men, with a lawyer speaking up for each one.

Then he called a name and there was no lawyer present. The defendant piped up. “The guy said he hadn’t seen a lawyer since he was locked up 70 days ago. And no one in the courtroom was shocked. No one was surprised,” Rapping said.

Complaints about the quality of representation also are difficult to sustain, under a high bar that the Supreme Court set in a 1984 case. The relatively few cases in which a lawyer’s work is deemed so bad that it violates his client’s rights typically have an outlandish set of facts that would be funny if the consequences weren’t tragic.

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