Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New public defender responsible for Texas capital writs

Though this blog doesn't focus much on death penalty issues, arguably the most significant achievement in the 81st Texas Legislature regarding indigent defense was the creation of a new Office of Capital Writs, described thusly in the Houston Chronicle by Lise Olsen ("State to handle capital appeals," July 27):

Texas, which executes more convicts than any other state in the nation, will open its first capital defense office next year to manage appeals for death row inmates after years of reports that appointed private attorneys repeatedly botched the job.

“The status quo has been an international embarrassment,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored the law that created the office. It was supported by an unusual alliance between the State Bar of Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals and public defense advocates, who all backed it in the last legislative session.

The law was inspired by a series of stories about Texas inmates who lost crucial appeals after court-appointed attorneys missed deadlines or filed only so-called “skeletal” writs — documents with little information often copied from other cases. It represents a significant reform for Texas, one of the only capital punishment states that lacks a public defender to oversee key death row appeals known as state writs of habeas corpus.

The office, with an annual budget of about $1 million and a staff of nine, won't open soon enough to help any of the inmates whose appellate rights were squandered recently.

“Better late than never,” said Juan Castillo, one of four death row inmates whose state appeals were never filed by the San Antonio attorney assigned to represent them. “This is a start. There's a lot of cases” that have been screwed up. ...

The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this year that three attorneys had repeatedly blown state or federal appellate deadlines for their death row clients, effectively surrendering their clients' rights to appeal. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently found two attorneys in contempt of court for their shoddy work, including Castillo's lawyer, Suzanne Kramer, and referred them to the State Bar of Texas for possible disciplinary action.

Anything that adds some professionalism and accountability into Texas' capital appeals process, I'm all for. Having a dedicated set of appellate attorneys might even help the process move along a bit faster, avoiding situations where defendants spend decades on death row.

Ellis is right that our system has become an "international embarrassment," and it'll take more than platitudes and good intentions to restore some credibility to the system. This is a positive development, as was the creation of a trial-level capital public defender for West Texas counties last year. Inch by inch, Texas is taking the first steps toward actually improving its capital appeals system instead of just butting heads with SCOTUS over it.

RELATED: Defending the Damned on the Cheap.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The positive impact of this office will depend entirely on who staffs it. If it is headed by friends of Judges on the CCA - like at least one existing public defender office, then it's a waste of time. Although Sen. Ellis deserves kudos for pushing this legislation through, we'd better wait and see how it works out in reality.

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