A bit overworked, eh? I had lunch with a couple of women from the Public Defenders office here on Friday. The subject of case loads came up, and they mentioned that they each have about 50 or so open files, about the same number I've got.
We're pikers compared to Karl Hinkebein. He's a public defender in Missouri, which is a bad place to be if you're a public defender. Or the client of one. The state allocates $355 per case for indigent defense. Only Mississippi spends less. The result? The state's 370 public defenders handle more than 80,000 criminal cases a year. One of the reasons I went to law school is that they promised there wouldn't be any math, but even Barbie can figure out that that comes to about 216 cases per year.
Of course, an average is just that. There will be defenders who handle fewer cases than that.
And there will be some who handle many more. The director of the state's public defender system says that one public defender is handling 298 cases, another 295, and a third 198. Those numbers aren't per year; that's the number of active cases those attorneys are handling right now.
That's where Hinkebein comes in. His workload, in comparison, was relatively light: "only" 110 active cases. The number of cases and chronic health problems resulted in the state's disciplinary counsel filing a complaint against him for neglecting six cases. The Supreme Court let him continue to practice law, putting him on probation; another violation could result in the loss of his license.
The other public defenders drew the proper inference from this: more cases, more chances to screw up, risk losing the law license, as opposed to fewer cases, less chances to screw up, less risk to the law license. And so the instinct of professional self-preservation kicked in, and they simply stopped taking cases. Or tried to: several judges have threatened public defenders with contempt if they refuse to take assignments. Others have instead appointed private attorneys to handle new cases. They're not paid; there's no provision in the state's budget for that, so they work pro bono. Lucky them.
I could spend the next three months writing posts about the abysmal state of indigent defense in this country. The simple fact is that state governments, including Ohio, are acquitting themselves of their Sixth Amendment obligation to provide lawyers to poor people on the backs of public defenders and private attorneys.
And they say irony is dead. Alva Campbell had a hearing yesterday to determine whether Governor Kasich will commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. His main argument is that he's too ill to be put to death; the extensive list of his maladies include emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the removal of his prostate gland and most of his right lung, gangrene in his colon, and a broken hip.
Charles Dials is the reason Campbell is on death row. Back in 1997, Campbell was being taken, via wheelchair, to a Franklin County courthouse for a hearing on a robbery charge. Transit by wheelchair was required because Campbell was paralyzed when the police shot him during his arrest. Well, not so much, it turns out: he sprang from the chair, overpowered a deputy sheriff and took her gun, then carjacked Dials, then 18-years old, who was at the courthouse to pay a traffic ticket. After driving Dials around for several hours, Campbell ordered him onto the floor of the truck and shot him twice in the head.
More proof that it isn't. Joseph Sledge was convicted of the murders of two women in 1976. That's not why he has his own Wikipedia page. The reason for that entry being the first hit if you Google his name is that he served 36 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence, the longest duration of incarceration that has been overturned by that evidence.
You see, Sledge had the misfortune not to be sentenced to death for his crimes. Instead, he was given two life sentences.
Why was that unfortunate? Because if he had been sentenced to death, he would have had access to all kinds of free attorney work. Once you get past the direct appeal stage, you're not entitled to an assigned lawyer any more. Yes, you can go out and hire one, but post-conviction work doesn't come cheap, and it's hard to put the money away for one from your earnings for making license plates.
Sledge was left to his own devices: he filed over 25 post-conviction motions from prison. He requested DNA testing of hairs, clothing, and other evidence, in 2003, but it took another nine years for the state to find that evidence. After they did and found nothing linking Sledge to the crime, the two jailhouse snitches who'd helped sink Sledge recanted, and he was freed.
One of the reasons for the dramatic decline in death penalty cases -- only 31 defendants were sentenced to death last year -- is the penalty of life without parole. But that's just another way of imposing a death sentence. If someone is sentenced to death, the capital defense machinery takes over: the Innocence Project might get involved, there are lawyers, and usually very skilled ones, handling not only the appeals, but every step of post-conviction relief and habeas, which usually involve multiple filings of each, with appeals from every decision. And in every step of that process, you have judges who, in the back of their minds, will wonder whether their decision will result in the death of an innocent person.
That's why somebody sentenced to death today is probably never going to be executed: it will take 20 or 30 years to carry out the sentence, by which time we very likely will not have one.
But if you're not sentenced to death, what you get is an appointed lawyer to handle your appeal, and maybe to handle the appeal to the Supreme Court. After that... you don't get an assigned lawyer for post-conviction, you don't get one for habeas, or the appeals from those. And you usually get only one shot at either. And the judge will look at the case like he does every single case where somebody's just doing time.
The Supreme Court was right: the death penalty is qualitatively different from every other punishment. And it's very easy to overlook the people who don't get it.