Texas lawyers have repeatedly missed deadlines for appeals on behalf of more than a dozen death row inmates in the last two years — yet judges continue to assign life-or-death capital cases and pay hundreds of thousands in fees to those attorneys, a Chronicle records review shows.
Missing deadlines means their clients can be automatically denied constitutionally mandated reviews before their execution. Houston lawyer Jerome Godinich missed three recent federal deadlines, the Chronicle reported in March. One client was executed in February after the federal appeal was filed too late. In March, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals chastened Godinich for using the same excuse — a malfunctioning after-hours filing machine — for missing another deadline for a man still on death row.
A recent review of the Harris County Auditor’s billing records and district court records shows Godinich remains one of the county’s busiest appointed criminal attorneys, billing for $713,248, including fees for 21 capital cases. He was appointed to handle 1,638 Harris County cases involving 1,400 different defendants from 2006-March 2009, court records show.
He refused comment.
Godinich is not the only attorney to miss death row deadlines. A San Antonio lawyer failed to file four state appeals on time, according to opinions last year by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A Fort Worth lawyer has missed both state and federal deadlines in at least five recent cases, though he sought and was granted more time to prepare on four of them, according to court records reviewed by the Chronicle.
The failure to file such appeals, called writs of habeas corpus, means death row inmates risk missing their last chance to submit new claims of innocence or evidence that could alter their conviction — or death sentence. State judges can be flexible, but federal judges follow tight and sometimes confusing deadlines.
Only one of three Texas lawyers who repeatedly missed such death row deadlines has faced fines or been forced to forgo fees by judges.
There's little doubt representation in capital cases has improved in Texas since the passage of the Fair Defense Act, but accountability mechanisms for excluding poor attorneys clearly haven't yet matured to the point where judges have clear guidance for when it's appropriate to reject or remove attorneys from the appointment list.
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