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When the "Worst of the Worst" Refers to the Attorney, Not the Criminal

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September 10, 2007

It’s safe to say that most Americans have some assumptions about the way the criminal justice system works. They might assume that a defendants’ court-appointed attorneys would stay awake during trial. They might also assume that the attorney would be sober enough to competently defend their client. As Christopher Hill, state strategies attorney for the Capital Punishment Project points out in an op-ed in today’s Atlanta-Journal Constitution, neither assumption can be taken for granted. Chris writes about the sad state of funding of public defenders offices across the country:

Public defenders are almost always overworked and underfunded. Court-appointed attorneys are almost always grossly underpaid and often unqualified to take on capital cases…these deficiencies almost invariably result in substandard representation…Defendants are fighting for their lives during capital trials. The Constitution guarantees effective lawyers and a fair trial – that means lawyers with the time, resources and skill to properly represent them. It also means expert assistance, access to technology and investigators. All of this costs money. As things now stand, adequate resources are sorely lacking in many parts of the country. As a result, the death penalty is too often reserved not for the “worst” offenders, but for those defendants with the worst lawyers.

Chris writes about this issue because the head of state capital defender’s office, Chris Adams, resigned because his office wasn’t funded enough to properly represent death penalty defendants. “The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is particularly true with regard to the defense of capital cases,” Adams told the paper.