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Two looks at the criminal justice system

One step forward, one step back... 

Dallas may not be the capital of Texas, but it likely holds the honor of being Ground Zero for wrongful convictions.  Piloted for 36 years by Henry Wade, the prosecutor's office achieved a stunning 93% trial conviction rate.  (There was actually an informal group of Dallas defense lawyers who'd won cases; they referred to themselves as "The 7% Club.")  Even after Wade's retirement in 1986, the office continued racking up convictions.

The first chink in that armor appeared just a couple years after Wade's retirement, with the release of Errol Morris' documentary, The Thin Blue Line, about the 1977 conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the killing of a Dallas police officer.  Adams was convicted and came within three days of being executed; he was freed when it turned out that the guy who had fingered him for the shooting was the one who did it.

Just a few months ago, the Dallas Morning News conducted an examination of 19 country cases where convicted defendants were subsequently exonerated by DNA evidence, some having served a decade or more in prison, and concluded that faulty prosecutorial and police procedures were the primary reason.  Those DNA exonerations were more than all but three other states, including California and Florida, and led to one Texas lawmaker calling it "an international embarassment."

Two years ago, Craig Watkins was elected to the Dallas County Prosecutor's spot, thereby becoming the first black man to be elected district attorney in any county in Texas.  He ran on a reform ticket, and upon taking office, fired nine top-level prosecutors and established a "Conviction Integrity Unit":

We immediately staffed it with two attorneys and two investigators, and told them to look at 400-some-odd cases for which there was DNA available to test. So their responsibility right now is to look through those 400 cases to see if there's reason to suspect a wrongful conviction. If they find cases, we'll then collect the DNA and test it. If it shows the person in prison is innocent, we'll start proceedings for an exoneration.

In addition to that, the unit has the responsibility of training the younger lawyers here in the office on the ethical side of a prosecutor's job--things like the importance of properly dealing with exculpatory evidence. And we intend to have this section here in this office forever. This is not a pilot program. It's something I'd like to see spread across the country--where DAs will actively seek out convictions that were obtained unfairly.

Bennett Brummer isn't newly-elected; in fact, he's been running the Public Defender's Office in the 11th Judicial District of Florida, which encompassess Miami-Dade County, since 1976.  His office employs nearly 200 lawyers, which might sound impressive, until you realize that the office is assigned over 100,000 cases a year.  That's an average of 500 cases a year per attorney.  The US Department of Justice's recommended standard is 225 cases.

Brummer decided to do something about that, so he sued the state to keep from having any more cases assigned to his office.  He argued that there was no way his people could competently represent defendants with that kind of workload.  In September, a Florida judge agreed with him, and said the office could refuse to represent those arrested on lesser felony charges so that its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients.  The case is now up on appeal.

Public defenders offices provide an inviting target for state and local governments looking for budget cuts because of the recession.  While the workload for Brummer's defenders rose by a third in the past three years, his budget was cut by 12.6%.  The number of cases assigned to public defenders in Missouri has increased by 12,000 annually in the past eight years, with no staff increases.  Next door to Brummer, Broward County is considering suing to stop their caseloads, and so are public defenders offices in at least six other states.  As this article notes,

such lawsuits are just the most overt sign of the burdens that lead harried lawyers in Michigan to talk openly about "McJustice" and in New York to make dark jokes about the plea bargain "assembly line."

"McJustice."  I like that.

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