DYK (#14) Death Penalty: Does Money Buy A Chance to Live?

Editor’s note: Thank you to everyone who has joined us for daily facts about the death penalty for these first two weeks of 2019! We hope that we have provided valuable information about the issues surrounding state sponsored murder in Texas and the U.S. We will continue this series as issues are requested or arise for discussion throughout the year! Please reach out if a topic interests you!

Our last topic for the Daily Did You Know is poverty and legal representation of defendants facing the death penalty.

A popular phrase among death penalty abolitionists is “Those without the capital get the punishment”. The truth is you will hard pressed to find a wealthy person on any death row in the nation, however wrongly convicted working class people are easy to come by. This often boils down to the quality of legal representation. As DPIC reports “An examination of 461 capital cases by The Dallas Morning News found that nearly one in four condemned inmates has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. (“Quality Of Justice” Dallas Morning News, September 10, 2000)”. The Equal Justice Initiative notes that “In some cases, lawyers representing defendants in capital trials have slept through parts of trial, shown up in court intoxicated, and failed to do any work at all in preparation for the sentencing phase.” While this is only a portion of death row cases, it is a frightening and unacceptable reality. A death penalty case should be taken incredibly seriously, yet a significant amount of lawyers have failed their clients even when knowing their lives were on the line.

Beyond the one in four lawyers who were disciplined, court-appointed attorneys often have very limited time and resources to investigate these cases. They are often juggling several cases at once, have a tiny portions of the funds needed to hire investigators and experts, and may even be inexperienced in death penalty cases. Even a court-appointed attorney doing their best is severely limited in their ability to defend their client compared to a well paid, experienced, private capital defense lawyer.

This failure of representation also occurs in appeals, where some on Death Row write much of their appeals on their own because their lawyers have seemingly stopped working on their cases. Some attorneys even fail to file any appeals which could stop their client’s execution. Texas Defender Service found that “Death row inmates today face a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney and without having any claims of innocence or unfairness presented or heard.” While we have seen an increase in appeals granted due to inadequate trial defense, the standard is still fairly high for this kind of relief, and many hundreds will likely continue towards execution due to poor legal assistance. Is it fair that the difference in life and death often depends on whether you can afford a competent and well researched defense?

For Further Reading:

Lethal Indifference: The fatal combination of incompetent attorneys and unaccountable courts in Texas death penalty appeals,  by Texas Defender Service


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