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Fighting to Fund a Fair Defense

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October 27, 2007

Newsweek reported Wednesday that the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council has run out of money defending one client: Brian Nichols. The capital case, which carries the potential for a death sentence, has ground to a halt while the state can get together more money to pay Nichols’ lawyers, who have been working for free since the money ran out.

It’s an issue that’s cropping up across the country. Judges in different states have intervened in death-penalty cases because many states have refused to underwrite the cost of a constitutionally adequate defense, according to John Holdridge, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project. “The problem is that politically it’s a very unpopular cause – the defense of people accused of crimes,” Holdridge says. “Politicians are constantly clamoring that they believe in the death penalty, but they refuse to pay for a fair system.” The states that are quickest to shepherd convicts into the execution chamber are also among those with the lowest-paid public defenders, Holdridge maintains. “Lawyers in most death-penalty states would be lucky to get a third of $165 [an hour],” he says, citing the standard pay for defense lawyers working in federal court (which is at the top end of the public-defense pay scale). “You get the defense you pay for.”

The Georgia State Public Defender’s Office was in the news last month when its director, Christopher Adams, quit because the office wasn’t able to properly represent death row defendants with its limited budget. Under-funding is especially prevalent in “death belt” states like Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama.

And just Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court suspended the prosecution of a death penalty case until more funds were made available to pay the defendants’ attorneys a reasonable hourly wage. In his opinion in State of New Mexico v. Young and Lopez, Judge Edward Chavez found the defense team’s compensation insufficient, “violating the defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.”

This isn’t the last you’ll hear of the “no more money” problem.

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