ACLU Urges Congress to Ensure Competent Counsel in Death Penalty Cases; Says Tragic Examples Demonstrate Flaws in Current System

June 27, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Citing numerous examples of incompetent counsel in recent death penalty cases and inequities in the imposition of capital punishment in America, the American Civil Liberties Union called upon Congress today to ensure effective legal representation for all defendants facing possible execution.

“When a life is in the balance – no matter what the alleged crime – justice demands that the most vigorous and effective legal defense be mounted,” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Our current system cannot guarantee this and must be changed.”

The ACLU’s comments come as the Senate Judiciary Committee meets today for a hearing on ensuring competent counsel for defendants in death penalty cases.

The ACLU said that tragic examples of incompetent counsel argue for Congressional intervention. They include:

  • A Texas man, convicted in a state court for the stabbing death of his companion, was given a new trial after a federal judge discovered that the defendant’s lawyer had slept through the bulk of the original trial. The federal court judge was quoted as saying, “sleeping counsel is equivalent to no counsel at all.”

  • Also in Texas, the lawyer for an innocent man, Federico Marcias, did almost nothing to prepare for trial, failed to call key witnesses who could have refuted the state’s case, and based his legal decisions on a fundamental misunderstanding of Texas law. Marcias was two days away from execution when the efforts of a volunteer Washington law office managed to clear his name.

  • In Georgia, the defense counsel in a death penalty case was asked to identify any criminal cases, from any court, with which he was familiar. The attorney was only able to name Miranda and Dred Scott (actually a civil case). Worse, the court deemed the man competent and he went on to handle other death penalty cases.

  • Andrew Golden, a law-abiding former teacher and family man, was sent to Florida death row for drowning his wife of 24 years with whom he had had, by all accounts, a loving and devoted relationship. His attorney did not prepare properly for trial and failed to present to the jury crucial evidence that proved the wife had killed herself over the recent death of her father. Golden spent two years on death row, driving him to the brink of suicide, before the Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision.

    “Competent counsel, especially in a capital case, is a right and an absolute necessity.” King said. “Unfortunately, our current system stacks the deck against those without the means for a privately funded defense. If your pockets aren’t deep enough for a Cochran or a Dershowitz or another celebrity lawyer then you’ve got a much better shot at finding yourself behind death row bars and praying for that eleventh-hour reprieve.”

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