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November 4, 2015

"Death sentences are down across the country — except for where one of these guys is the defense attorney."

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable new Slate commentary authored by Robert Smith. The piece merits a full read, and here are some excerpts:

“He looks like a killer, not a retard,” Nathaniel Carr, a lawyer in Maricopa County, Arizona, wrote about his client, Israel Naranjo, who is now on death row. Naranjo has a standardized IQ score of 72, but Carr badly botched the introduction of this evidence at trial. The trial judge found that Carr “violated the rules of criminal procedure” and admonished him for both lacking candor and filing “offensive” and “incomprehensible” motions. The Arizona Supreme Court said Carr’s behavior could be described as “willful misconduct.” Carr has represented four of the men who currently occupy Arizona’s death row....

Carr might not visit his capital clients very often, but he does seem to be dedicated to his job — his other job as a high school football coach. People who knew Carr at the county courthouse told Paul Rubin of the Phoenix New Times that “coaching seems Carr’s true passion.” Indeed, Carr “often was unavailable to clients and co-counsel on most weekday afternoons during football season—and always on game days.” This dual career did not stop Carr from billing the county an average of $370,000 per year for his services — even though some the hours he billed were for team meetings and prison visits that appear to be fictitious. (Carr did not respond to requests for comment.)

Last year marked the lowest number of new death sentences in modern American history. Nationwide, in the five-year period from 2010 through 2014, only 13 counties imposed five or more death sentences. Maricopa County is one of those 13. With 24 new death sentences between 2010 and 2014, Maricopa is the nation’s second highest producer of death sentences, after Los Angeles County, which is twice as populous.

One explanation for why counties like Maricopa hang on to capital punishment is that the prosecutors in these places are outliers who continue to pursue death sentences with abandon, mitigating circumstances and flaws in the system be damned. But prisoners sentenced to death in these counties often suffer a double whammy — they get both the deadliest prosecutors in America and some of the country’s worst capital defense lawyers. Nathanial Carr makes that list of awful lawyers, but he is not the only one from Maricopa who deserves to be included.

Herman Alcantar has been called, by a lawyer intervening on behalf of one of his former clients, “arguably the busiest capital defense attorney in the entire United States.” That’s not a compliment. Capital cases are notoriously complex and time-consuming. One trial-level capital case can be a full caseload for a defense attorney, and almost no one considers it a good idea to handle more than two active death penalty cases at a time. During the winter of 2009, Alcantar represented five pretrial capital defendants at once. He was so busy, in fact, that one month before the trial of Fabio Gomez was set to begin, Alcantar had neither filed a single substantive motion nor visited his client in more than a year. Six of Alcantar’s former clients are on death row....

Like Maricopa, Duval County, Florida, is among the few counties in America that continue to regularly impose death sentences. Since 2010, it is the second highest producer of death sentences per capita, after Caddo Parish, Louisiana. MO When Shirk took over, he fired 10 lawyers, including senior capital litigators Ann Finnell and Pat McGuinness, whose stellar representation of a wrongfully arrested 15-year-old, Brenton Butler, was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary film, Murder on a Sunday Morning. With his experienced capital litigators gone, Shirk hired Refik Eler to be his deputy chief and the head of homicide prosecutions. Since 2008, Eler has been a defense lawyer on at least eight cases that resulted in a death sentence. That’s more than any other lawyer in Florida. (Eler declined to comment.)...

The quality of defense representation in capital cases has substantially improved in many places. But not in Caddo Parish. Like Maricopa and Duval counties, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, is one of the few districts that continue to regularly impose the death penalty. Indeed, Caddo has become the leading per capita death-sentencing machine in America. Of the death sentences imposed in Caddo Parish since 2005, 75 percent of the cases involved at least one defense lawyer who, under the new case representation standards, is no longer certified to try capital cases in Louisiana....

In the counties with the most death sentences, prosecutors and defense lawyers, often abetted by judges and other local officials, fight to maintain the status quo that Stephen Bright wrote about 20 years ago. In these places, the death penalty is still a punishment reserved mostly for the people with the worst lawyers. Disproportionate numbers of death sentences in these few counties do not result from a high number of murders, or even the unique fervor of the residents who reside there, but instead from the operation of death’s double whammy—bloodthirsty, overreaching prosecutors and woefully inadequate defense lawyers.

November 4, 2015 at 03:41 PM | Permalink

Comments

Bad lawyers need to be disbarred.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Nov 4, 2015 10:04:42 PM

Were any of his clients innocent? If not, shut up, already.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 5, 2015 2:26:19 AM

"bloodthirsty"?

How does the piece merit a full read with that sort of nonsense in it?

Posted by: federalist | Nov 5, 2015 12:35:12 PM

So Supremacy Clause--if you were facing a criminal or civil judgment and your incompetent attorney screwed up, causing the judgment to be much more punishing than it would be had he performed competently, the logical response would be "shut up, already." It's hard to take that kind of response to attorney malfeasance seriously.

Posted by: decencyevolves | Nov 5, 2015 7:32:12 PM

One has to question what a "retard" is these days.

Posted by: Jack Mehoff | Nov 6, 2015 11:50:28 AM

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