Death Row Defense

By Jennings, Diane | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, September/October 2001 | Go to article overview

Death Row Defense

Jennings, Diane, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Indigent inmates get poor representation

In a state as big as Texas - 20 million people and 254 counties - any story examining a statewide issue is challenging. But studying the issue of indigent defense. which The Dallas Morning News did, proved particularly daunting, requiring a combination of old-fashioned penand-paper reporting skills and contemporary computer savvy.

The results were significant: After three months of plowing through dusty files and databases. the paper found that about one in four death row inmates had been defended by lawyers who were reprimanded, placed on probation. suspended or banned from practicing law by the State Bar of Texas.

In about half of these instances, the misconduct occurred before the attorney was appointed to handle the capital case. The infractions included problems such as failing to appear in court, falsifying documents, failing to present key witnesses and allowing clients to lie.

The Morning News also learned that in one county, the judge had the prosecutor's office handle court appointments of defense attorneys, effectively allowing the district attorney to choose his opponent. As the story was going to press, the judge promptly resigned.

Further, using a Dallas County payment database, we learned that the local lawyer who has been paid the most out of the county's indigent defense fund was not representing poor people charged with crimes. Instead, judges were paying him almost $250,000 a year out of the fund to answer mail they received from prison inmates and to handle routine legal writs - tasks performed by secretaries and legal assistants in other counties.

After the story appeared, under pressure from the county commissioners, the judges abandoned this practice.

Sleeping lawyers

Researching the use of court-appointed attorneys was particularly difficult for the very reason the paper decided to pursue the story - there is no statewide system or standards for appointing lawyers for the poor, making it difficult to know how well such appointments actually work. Each judge has used his own method of deciding not only the attorneys qualified to handle appointments, but also when they are appointed and how much they are paid.

In other words, there are more than 800 systems, because that's how many judges preside in Texas.

To tackle the issue, a team of reporters divided the subject into three parts: timeliness of appointment; death penalty representation; and appointment methods.

To find examples of defendants who sat in jail for months before being provided an attorney, reporter Brooks Egerton worked the phone, querying source after source, before hitting the road. He found three examples in three different parts of the state. His story about Felipe Rodriguez, a young retarded man who had been locked up for months on arson charges without even a visit from his court-appointed attorney led to dismissal of the charges and Rodriguez' release from jail.

The quality of attorneys appointed in capital cases has been an issue in Texas for years, because of several highly publicized trials in which lawyers dozed off or put forth little effort on behalf of their clients.

The Morning News wanted more than anecdotal evidence, so we decided to find out exactly how good or how bad the representation is by compiling a list of attorneys who had represented each of the 461 inmates on death row at that time, and checking their disciplinary record.

The inmate names were taken from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site and put into an Access database. The paper's library staff used those names to search legal databases for published judicial decisions. A reporter read each of those decisions, searching for names of lawyers who represented the inmates at trial or on appeal.

Librarians then used a database to search for clips mentioning attorney names. Next, research librarian Darlean Spangenberger journeyed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, to search original files for those cases where little or no information had been found. …

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