Deficient defense sends indigent to death row

Counsel in capital cases often underpaid novices

March 01, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OPELIKA, Ala. -- The desk in Mike Williams' office is a map of his busy small-town law practice.

It is stacked with cases. The under-age Auburn University student charged with possession of alcohol. The collection of rent for a local real estate agent. The bitter divorce in which the wife, who is Williams' client, is charging the husband with adultery.

The case that does not fit is the one partially contained in the cardboard box on the floor: State of Alabama vs. James Wyman Smith.

Smith, 58, convicted of murdering a convenience-store clerk, did not have the money to hire a lawyer, so the court had appointed Williams to represent him at his two trials, even though Williams had scant experience in criminal law, not to mention the complex, high-stakes subspecialty of capital defense.

Williams had no money to hire an investigator. The state paid him so little that in a brief to the court he said he ended up making "$4.98 per hour to prepare for the defense of a human's life."

Smith died on death row Feb. 17, of liver failure.

In states from Illinois to Texas, there is an intensifying debate focusing on the quality of the legal representation for people accused of capital crimes. At its sharpest, it is a question of whether some innocent people are on death row only because their state does not provide the resources for an adequate or competent public defender system.

The pro-death-penalty Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, recently called for a moratorium on the death penalty after concluding that 13 innocent people had almost been executed, in some cases because of dismal defenses mounted by incompetent or poorly paid lawyers.

Some states, including New York, New Jersey and Colorado, have multimillion-dollar capital defender offices that provide teams of top lawyers and investigators for people in death penalty trials.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alabama, which, with a death row growing at the fastest rate in the country, has no statewide public defender system.

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