Friday, May 14, 2010

Capital public defender office may go statewide

There could be big changes coming on the capital defense front across Texas, according to a story out of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal last month ("Defender office could see expansion," April 27). County Commissioners in Hub City:

submitted an application for a $7.65 million grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to greatly increase the scope of the West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases.

If approved, the office that has already saved member counties in West Texas an estimated $637,000 in its two-year existence would expand drastically and become responsible for indigent capital defense statewide.

"From a nationwide perspective, it really elevates Texas' standards to show Texas is willing to provide the best possible defense they can for individuals charged with capital murder and willing to take whatever steps that requires to make sure that happens," said David Slayton, director of court administration for Lubbock County.

Slayton said the expansion would be good for Lubbock County because, as host county, it would be spearheading the state's indigent capital defense initiative.

The grant for the Public Defender for Capital Cases would fund defense for 240 of Texas' 254 counties. That's every county with a population of less than 300,000.

The office would remain headquartered in Lubbock, but would have 10 satellite offices and include a chief public defender, assistant chief public defender, 29 attorneys, 16 investigators, 23 mitigation specialists and 18 legal secretaries.

"One of the benefits I see is we'll have some consistency from office to office around the state," said Chief Public Defender Jack Stoffregen.

Stoffregen would be responsible for increasing the staff from 15 to 90 people.

The West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases currently serves 71 counties in an 85-county region.

Counties participating in the capital defender office essentially are purchasing "murder insurance," which defrays high, one-time costs for capital murder cases that can nearly bankrupt small counties. Hardly anybody who can afford to hire their own lawyer is ever indicted for capital murder, so in most counties this office would handle virtually all death penalty cases, as a practical matter.

Given Texas' historic national leadership among states seeking executions, the capital defender office is an unique and remarkable cooperative development. I've heard only a few opinions and have no direct knowledge about the quality of representation provided, but it's a fascinating model that (apparently) soon most counties in the state may embrace.

1 comment:

Adrienne Dunn said...

That is very encouraging news. I believe several states have a similar model. When I attended the Actual Innocence seminar last year, a guest speaker was from the Minnesota PD and the year before, an organizer discussed the North Carolina capital defender office. In my opinion, having a statewide capital defender office is a no-brainer; Texas should have had such an office decades ago. This is good news.