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October 23, 2011

Effective review of capital law ineffectiveness in Pennsylvania

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer has this very lengthy review of the copious errors by capital defense attorneys in Pennsylvania.  Here is how the piece, which is headlined "In life and death cases, costly mistakes," gets started:

Willie Cooper, convicted of strangling his brother's girlfriend to death in a Germantown apartment, was awaiting a jury's decision on whether he should be sentenced to death, when his lawyer rose to speak on his behalf.

Citing the biblical passage "an eye for an eye," the lawyer told jurors that the ancient edict called for the death penalty only in the killing of a pregnant woman.  Cooper had killed a pregnant woman.  Inexplicably, his lawyer had forgotten that.  The jury voted to impose the death penalty.

Cooper's case is among more than 125 capital murder trials in Pennsylvania ---  69 in Philadelphia alone -- that state and federal appeals courts have reversed or sent back for new hearings because mistakes by defense lawyers deprived the accused of a fair trial. That amounts to nearly one-third of the 391 capital convictions in Pennsylvania since the modern death penalty took effect in 1978.

An Inquirer review of death-penalty appeals spanning three decades found that defense lawyers in these high-stakes cases failed their clients in ways large and small.  Lawyers fighting for defendants' very lives often spend little time preparing their cases and put on only the barest defense.  They neglect basic steps, such as interviewing defendants, seeking out witnesses, and investigating a defendant's background.

The problem is particularly acute in Philadelphia, where legal experts say the lawyers who handle such cases -- typically at taxpayers' expense because defendants are indigent -- are often overworked and underpaid. Court-appointed lawyers get $2,000 for trial preparation and $400 a day in court to handle cases that a veteran defense attorney said required a minimum outlay of $35,000 to $40,000.

"The number of reversals on these cases is staggering," said Ronald L. Greenblatt, chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  "The attorneys who are doing this work, because of the low pay, are not doing it the right way.  We really need it to stop."

The price of replaying such proceedings is costly.  Death-penalty appeals consume hundreds of hours of work by dozens of lawyers, judges, police officers, and witnesses, and, even by modest estimates, cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They take a toll on victims' families, who must revisit painful memories at multiple court hearings and often wait years for justice.  And in rare instances, they force defendants to languish on death row, only to later be acquitted.

October 23, 2011 at 09:58 PM | Permalink


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The death penalty in Pennsylvania is a huge success. It generates lots of lawyer jobs and income, its sole real aim. And Philadelphia is a top judicial hellhole for its citizens.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 24, 2011 4:16:02 AM

Is it not possible that Willie Cooper's attorney foresaw a death penalty and thus ->purposely<- committed a "mistake" which supposedly "deprived the accused of a fair trial," and provoked a reversal or remand?

I have read of such shenanigans. Jose Baez now rightly? faces sanctions in FL for other improper behavior as an attorney, and was not chary to proffer multiple, unsubstantiated molestation charges in the Casey Anthony trial.

Posted by: adamakis | Oct 24, 2011 11:17:20 AM

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