ANNAPOLIS — A Carroll delegate is seeking to keep death row inmates from prolonging their cases and wasting taxpayers' money by denying a now-automatic privilege to free legal assistance once initial appeals to state and federal courts have been exhausted.
The bill has been criticized by current and former public defenders who say the proposal made byDelegate Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll, tramples on basic judicial rights.
The bill would require courts to determine if legal assistance should be granted to any person convicted of a crime upon submission ofa first petition to set aside the sentence.
Currently, those sentenced either to death or lesser punishment are entitled to legal assistance and a hearing for the first "post-conviction petition" challenging a conviction or sentence. The petition is separate from the normal avenue of appeals through the Maryland Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. It could claim the sentence or judgment was unconstitutional, legal representation was incompetent or state other groundsfor legal error.
For a subsequent petition, courts decide if the petitioner should be granted assistance of counsel or a hearing to prevent abuse of the system.
Dixon argues that those sentenced to death should be entitled to a public defense through the appeals process, up to the U.S. Supreme Court. After those options are exhausted, the courts would decide if a judicial challenge has merit and should entitle a convict to counsel, the bill says.
"We have people in theState Penitentiary working on their fourth, fifth, sixth appeals," said Dixon. "There's a multi-million dollar cost for appeals, and it'sall done with taxpayers' money. A person still would have the right to appeal as many times as he wants, it's just that taxpayers would only pay once."
A state public defender and two former longtime Carroll public defenders object to the bill. They say it would deny fundamental rights, circumvent an important step of the judicial process and consume even more court time.
"It's a critical stage in a criminal proceeding," said Michael Levin, a Carroll public defender from 1977 to 1990 who also has handled post-conviction cases for Baltimore. "It deprives everyone of an appeal right when there may have been amistake in the trial. We're talking about people who 99 times out of100 will be serving a jail sentence, people who are illiterate or indigent."
Levin emphasized that the proposal would not apply only to death penalty cases, but to many others.
Dixon said his intention was to target only inmates sentenced to death, but bill drafters advised against such specific language. He is awaiting an estimate fromthe Office of the Public Defender on potential savings and a response from the Attorney General's Office on the constitutionality of the bill.
"When people have a trial, are convicted and a sentence is imposed, that sentence should be carried out," he said. "The problem is, we haven't put anyone in the gas chamber in a long time. The deathpenalty in this state is a joke if no one has been executed in 13 years."
Inmates need attorneys to file a petition identifying violations that could have occurred during their trials, said J. Robert Johnson, a Carroll public defender from 1972 to 1990. Dixon said the bill would not preclude convicts from retaining their own attorney.
"If there's any conceivable basis for constitutional violations or other arguments, an attorney is not only a help to a client but to the court to recognize it and raise it," said Johnson. "If a petitioner files an inarticulate petition, what basis do the courts have to make a determination? The court would have to conduct an investigative hearing to determine whether someone is entitled to counsel. It may end up wasting more time than saving."
Alfred J. O'Ferrall, chief of inmate services for the state Public Defender's Office, said the proposal "affronts the principles of law I've been used to."
He said the measure could save taxpayers' money by removing some burden from the office, but wouldn't reduce litigation because lawyers from private firms, civic organizations and other groups would take the cases.
Levin said waiving constitutional rights is too steep a price to pay to save public money.