NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Defending The Poor In Capital Crime Cases

March 1, 2000

Are poor defendants sent to death row in murder cases being adequately defended in court? That question is at the heart of an intensifying debate throughout the U.S. Some criminologists and legal observers maintain that in too many cases the quality of legal representation being furnished poor people is below par.

  • Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, spend millions of dollars on their capital defender system to provide teams of lawyers and investigators to defendants in death penalty trials -- while others, such as Alabama, have no statewide public defender apparatus and rely instead on court-appointed counsel.
  • Since executions were reinstated in the late 1970s, 85 death row inmates have been found innocent nationwide.
  • The right of a defendant to counsel was guaranteed in the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainright.
  • Defense lawyers in Alabama say they are paid so little in court-appointed cases that they often spend 50 hours or less preparing for a capital trial -- even though experts say adequate preparation should take 500 to 1,000 hours.

Critics say capital cases are often entrusted to young or inexperienced lawyers. And lawyers sometimes fail to do the most fundamental tasks, like investigating the case and their client's background and presenting closing arguments, they charge.

Source: Sara Rimer, "Questions of Death Row Justice for Poor People in Alabama," New York Times, March 1, 2000.


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