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June 8, 2009

Looking at a case in which SCOTUS will look at Alabama's death penalty

This week's installment of Adam Liptak's Sidebar column in the New York Times is headlined "Death Penalty Case Reveals Failings," and it examines a capital case from Alabama now before  the Supreme Court.  Here are excerpts:

Kenneth B. Trotter had been practicing law for less than a year when an Alabama judge appointed him to assist two more seasoned lawyers in defending a man facing the death penalty.  After the man, Holly Wood, was convicted in 1994 of murdering his former girlfriend, Mr. Trotter led the effort to persuade the jury to spare his life.  The young lawyer came up just short: the jury recommended death by a vote of 10-to-2, the minimum allowed under Alabama law.

Mr. Trotter failed to pursue or present evidence that his client was mentally retarded, though he had a competency report in hand that said as much.  In September, a divided three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled that he had made a strategic decision, not a grave error....

Last month, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Wood’s case.  It will give the court a glimpse of Alabama’s capital justice system, which is among the most troubled in the nation.  The state lacks a public defender’s office, elects judges for whom death sentences are a campaign promise, pays appointed lawyers a pittance and sometimes leaves death row inmates to navigate the intricacies of post-conviction challenges with no lawyers at all.

The root problem is money, said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, a nonprofit law firm that represents poor people and prisoners.  The lawyers appointed to represent Mr. Wood in 1994 were entitled to a maximum of $1,000 to prepare for the penalty phase of the trial. “It ought not be a shock to anyone that you get this kind of defense with that kind of funding,” Mr. Stevenson said. “The poor quality of indigent defense is still the ugliest scar on capital punishment in America.”

June 8, 2009 at 06:56 PM | Permalink

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Comments

As usual with the New York Times, the problem is not the murder (which gets exactly one antisceptic sentence in the excerpts posted here), but the defendant's lawyers. All three of them.

It's way too much to hope for that the Times will quit with these anti-DP editorials masquerading as news. Still, the management of the Times might, simply for purposes of the paper's survival, want to spend a moment reflecting on why its readership and ad revenues continue to plummet. No wonder they had to mortgage the building.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 8, 2009 7:39:17 PM

Thank you, thank you for your admission against interest.

"The root problem is money, said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama,..."

Money, the real aim. The murder, the trial, the verdict, the appeal, the pretext.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 8, 2009 8:29:07 PM

Bill Otis, killing the messenger (no pun intended).

Posted by: Anon | Jun 8, 2009 10:19:52 PM

Mr. Otis, Perhaps you want to explain why the NYT is wrong. I read your comments, and they seem to be lacking in that substance.

(Also $1,000 is not enough to prepare for anything.)

Posted by: S.cotus | Jun 9, 2009 6:30:32 AM

The Supreme Court didn't grant cert to decide whether this guy committed a horrible crime. It granted cert to review elements of the process Alabama follows in prosecuting/reviewing death penalty cases. Thus, the newsworthy information has to do with that process, not the underlying crime.

Posted by: Liberal Media Bee-atch | Jun 9, 2009 10:53:00 AM

Bill, I thought "the problem" is a process that would pit novice lawyers with $1,000 war chests against a government intent on killing their borderline-retarded clients.

The fact two more experienced lawyers were involved was less comforting after reading the comments of one of them, a lawyer who sounded a lot like Boss Hogg.

The Times is struggling because newspapers cost more to produce than there is advertising to support them, not because a cabal of reactionaries have persuaded themselves the Times is the devil.

Fact is a number of big city papers (some of them better suited to right-wing sensibilities than the Times) have been struggling and folding lately.

Posted by: John K | Jun 9, 2009 11:06:07 AM

Anon --

"Bill Otis, killing the messenger (no pun intended)."

Actually, the messenger (of the as-usual skewed messege) is being killed by loss of circulation and ad revenues. If you want to explain how I'm responsible for that, feel free.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 9, 2009 1:35:15 PM

Liberal Media Bee-atch --

"The Supreme Court didn't grant cert to decide whether this guy committed a horrible crime."

Of course there are those who would say that his sentence should depend PRECISELY on whether he committed a horrible crime.

"It granted cert to review elements of the process Alabama follows in prosecuting/reviewing death penalty cases. Thus, the newsworthy information has to do with that process, not the underlying crime."

Which is yet another reason not to let the New York Times decide for you what is "newsworthy."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 9, 2009 1:40:56 PM

John K --

"Bill, I thought 'the problem' is a process that would pit novice lawyers with $1,000 war chests against a government intent on killing their borderline-retarded clients."

Then you thought wrong, a common problem with those prone to elevate process (the lawyering) over substance (the murder).

Incidentally, just how smart do you have to be to know that it's immoral to kill an innocent person to satisfy your own ends?

"The fact two more experienced lawyers were involved was less comforting after reading the comments of one of them, a lawyer who sounded a lot like Boss Hogg."

You can win a lot of cases in Alabama sounding like Boss Hog. I guarantee you'll do better with that approach than some guy the jury spots as oozing contempt for them with his Oxford/Cambridge accent.

"The Times is struggling because newspapers cost more to produce than there is advertising to support them, not because a cabal of reactionaries have persuaded themselves the Times is the devil."

Some papers are struggling and some aren't. Four of the most prominent struggling papers (the NYT, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Boston Globe) are tilted way to the left and have been for years.

By the way, I'd say your biases are showing with your "cabal of reactionaries" remark, but why belabor the obvious?

Still, you might be onto something. Just today, I spotted, huddling behind a tree, a REALLY SUSPICIOUS GROUP with what seemed to me to be a bunch of slightly used "Reagan for President" placards.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 9, 2009 2:00:40 PM

I haven't left a comment here in ages (since I was in law school), so forgive me if I'm covering something that has already been discussed. I simply don't understand why some people spend their time here constantly making the same facile arguments about lawyers and the criminal justice system. We get it- you love the death penalty, hate lawyers (especially criminal defense attorneys) and probably think the NYT should have been blown up on 9-11. Do you derive some sort of pleasure by posting these thoughts over and over? Maybe I'm crazy, but I thought the purpose of commenting on a blog was to further the dialogue about a particular topic.
But then, it does seem as if every blog (and newspaper site's comments section) has its share of participants who seem to think offering the same trite comments over and over is somehow sticking it to "the man."

Posted by: Justin | Jun 10, 2009 1:54:11 AM

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