The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 17, 2013

Serious problems persist in indigent legal defense


“You see too many instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, too many instances where you think, ‘Was this lawyer crazy?”’ Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said at the Justice Department event.

She recounted a case from last term in which a lawyer advised his client to reject a plea deal with a seven-year prison term and go to trial. The lawyer said prosecutors could not prove a charge of intent to murder because the victim had been shot below the waist. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Kagan was part of the 5-4 decision in the defendant’s favor.

In some places, lawyers are overwhelmed by their caseloads. A public defender in Indianapolis lasted less than a year in his job after being asked to represent more than 300 defendants at a time, said Norman Lefstein, former dean of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

“A lawyer with an S on his chest for Superman couldn’t represent these people. He simply couldn’t do it. There are only so many hours in a day. But it’s not just caseload. It’s the other support services that go along with it,” including investigators, said Lefstein, who has studied problems in indigent defense for decades.

In Luzerne County, in northeastern Pennsylvania, the chief public defender told the local court he would stop accepting certain cases because his office had too many clients, too few lawyers and not enough money. A judge’s ruling in June acknowledged the lack of money and manpower, but forbade the defender’s office to turn away cases. The judge’s ruling was encouraging, Lefstein said, but on his last visit to Wilkes-Barre in January he found “the caseloads are worse than ever.”

Eighteen states, including California, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, leave the funding of indigent defense entirely to their counties, said Rhoda Billings, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court who has looked at the issue for the American Bar Association. Those states “have a significant disparity in the appointment of counsel” from one county to the next, Billings said.

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