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November 8, 2008

Utah high court expresses concerns about capital representation

As detailed in this local article, on Friday the Utah Supreme Court used an opinion in a capital case to express concern about the state and quality of defense representation.  Here are some particulars:

Concerned about the lack of qualified lawyers willing to represent indigent death-row inmates, the Utah Supreme Court warned Friday it might be forced to reverse capital sentences.

In the case of condemned killer Michael Anthony Archuleta, a unanimous court said low pay and the complexity of such cases have shrunk the pool of Utah attorneys who will accept them. Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins wrote the justices may soon be "forced" to rule a lack of able and willing attorneys is grounds to reverse a death sentence and impose life without parole instead.

State lawmakers have the duty to provide adequate resources to train and compensate death-penalty lawyers, the high court said.

Here are the notable closing paragraphs of this opinion from the Utah Supreme Court in Archuleta v. Galetka:

In recent years we have become especially concerned with the diminishing pool of competent counsel in capital cases.  There is no acceptable justification for this trend.  Competent defense and appellate counsel are guaranteed by our constitution.  We cannot allow a defendant’s life to be taken by the government without an adequate review of the conviction.  Our judicial oath to support, protect, and defend the Constitution must, of necessity, include the requirement that we take measures within our authority and responsibility to see that the mandates of the Constitution are observed.

It is the duty of the legislative branch to provide for adequate defense of capital defendants, including sufficient resources to attract, train, compensate, and support legal counsel.  It is left to the legislative branch to determine how best to accomplish this goal.  However, it falls to us, as the court of last resort in this state, to assure that no person is deprived of life, liberty, or property, without the due — and competent — process of law.  Without a sufficient defense, a sentence of death cannot be constitutionally imposed.  This basic concept is bedrock upon which our constitutional government stands.

If, in the future, we find that the unavailability of competent and willing counsel impedes prompt, constitutionally sound resolution in capital cases, we may be forced to hold that the lack of such counsel is sufficient grounds for outright reversal of a capital sentence and remand for the imposition of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, for which the required degree of sophistication and skill reposed in counsel is slightly less.

November 8, 2008 at 08:54 PM | Permalink


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The big irony is that the state was moving to sanction the defendant's counsel, and the issue of whether they get to kill the defendant isn't even addressed.

Also, I wonder if any of the counsel or judges involved would be capable, if they were in private practice, of representing the defendant.

Posted by: S.cotus | Nov 8, 2008 11:33:50 PM

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