Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Capital defense expenses the result of DA decisions, not a "financial emergency"

I've been very supportive of the Task Force on Indigent Defense as it promoted public defender systems, including the widely praised capital appellate defender system in West Texas which now covers dozens of counties. I'm less confident, though, that it's helpful for the Task Force to straight up pay the bills for capital defense, which is what the Longview News Journal said ("Harrison County receives grant to help defray murder trial expenses," Sept. 5) is happening in Marshall and elsewhere:
Harrison County has been awarded a $98,000 grant to help offset the almost $500,000 deficit from expenses relating to murder trials.

The Texas Task Force of Indigent Services awarded a total of $650,000 to six counties that demonstrated extraordinary indigent defense expenses that constituted a financial emergency.

“The county needed help recouping funds lost in the recent capital murder trial,” said Harrison County First Assistant Auditor Jana Smallwood, who was responsible for the application.

The county budgeted $250,000 for the trial of Cortne Mareese Robinson, and it ended up costing almost twice that for the defense and prosecution costs, Smallwood said.
District Attorney decisions are already perhaps-too detached from budget considerations, but subsidizing death-penalty defense (as opposed to, say, burglary, DWI, non-capital murder, or defense of incompetent jail inmates) seems like a politicized way to encourage more of the very most expensive and problematic type of criminal litigation. Appeals go on for years, quite a few men have been exonerated from death row, including Anthony Graves, and more than half of Texas death sentences do not result in executions, according to a recent analysis. Counties that pay full freight for capital cases will perhaps calculate that into prosecutors' thinking when they make the next decision about whether to pursue capital charges.

By contrast, the task force earlier set up a West Texas appellate public defender for capital defense - dubbed "murder insurance" by its proponents - that operates on a bit more of a "Lord helps those who help themselves model," creating a system that in the long-term is self-sustaining instead of subsidizing short-term consequences from county-level policy decisions.

I don't think such grants are where the Task Force on Indigent Defense can get its greatest bang for the buck.


Anonymous said...

I've often wondered just how many days our justice system could hold up if everyone arrested demanded a trial. Even if only 20% would do it they could bring the entire system to a complete halt within a week. And that's not even considering the financial aspects...

Alex Bunin said...

It is a complicated issue. Many years ago, capital defense attorneys, particularly habeas lawyers, thought about refusing to provide any more pro bono or underpaid labor because it merely subsidized a system that otherwise denied counsel to death row inmates. However, very few could stand to watch while inmates were executed without lawyers. Similarly, here, is it encouraging counties to seek death sentences because there is money for the defense, or is it just avoiding an underfunded defense? The Task Force (which is now the Texas Commission on Indigent Defense), is issuing a grant because that is the only mechanism they have for funding. Your point is good, but the issue is not simple.

Phillip Baker said...

Here's a simple solution that will save a lot of money. End the death penalty. Clearly it is rife with problems. Innocent men have been killed. Others have spent decades in prison before finally proving their innocence. The cost of mandated appeals alone is huge. So how about Texas joining the entire rest of the industrialized countries of the world and ending this capricious, barbaric practice? Or do we really want to continue keeping company with enlightened regimes like China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen..?

Attorneys in Columbia SC said...

In other countries, people don't go to court for a simple spend ticket, they just pay and move on... Different culture..!

David Slayton said...

Just a clarification. The program set up by the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense (as it was called in 2007) was the West Texas Public Defender for Capital Cases. That office has now expanded to all other regions around the state except the north central and northeast Texas regions (plans to expand to those in FY2013 are in the works). With the expansion, the office is now called the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases. It is a trial level public defender office, not appellate and there are now well over 100 counties participating in the program.