Capital lawyers in Maryland do the job right The Sun's...

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July 06, 2002

Capital lawyers in Maryland do the job right

The Sun's zeal to bring recognition to the serious problems that infect the administration of capital punishment in this country is understandable. But the editorial "Lawyers and death" (June 11) contained several inaccuracies that require correction.

The editorial highlighted the recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling holding that it was ineffective counsel for an attorney to nap repeatedly during a client's capital trial.

A better example of bad lawyering would be tough to find. The Sun drew the conclusion that "this issue hits home in Maryland" as well. The three cases The Sun cites, however, fail to demonstrate this point.

Eugene Colvin-el was represented at trial by an assigned private attorney 20 years ago, shortly after Maryland's death penalty statute was revived. His trial was clearly a travesty.

The state Office of the Public Defender, through staff and appointed counsel, worked tirelessly for more than two decades to rectify this injustice. As a result, two years ago, Mr. Colvin-el's death sentence was commuted within days of his scheduled execution.

The Sun's summary of the case of Wesley Baker -- as one in which trial counsel did not present relevant mitigating evidence to the sentencing judge "because Mr. Baker thought the evidence was too embarrassing" -- is also misleading.

In fact, the trial court was well aware of Mr. Baker's desire not to disparage his mother's reputation in open court. The court chose to allow Mr. Baker, rather than his attorney, to control what evidence was presented on his behalf. Further, shortly following the trial, attorneys for Mr. Baker requested a motion for modification of sentence, under which all the mitigating evidence not previously heard was presented to the court.

Nevertheless, the court imposed the death sentence. But through the persistent, decade-long efforts of the state and federal public defender and appointed counsel, Mr. Baker just last month again received a stay of execution.

The last case the editorial mentioned, that of Anthony Grandison, requires little comment. The Sun notes only that Mr. Grandison received poor representation when he was permitted by the trial court to proceed without a lawyer and conduct his own defense. But under our Constitution, defendants have the right to represent themselves.

In its editorial, The Sun inaccurately points to a "new rule" in Maryland requiring that a public defender must "team" with a private attorney in capital cases. Such a rule does not exist. In fact, the Office of the Public Defender's staff attorneys represent virtually all capital clients at the trial and appellate level. And two attorneys are assigned in all capital cases.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender shares The Sun's grave concerns regarding the racial and geographical disparities in capital punishment's implementation, but the capital lawyers in Maryland do not share in the national shame of unconscionably deficient representation.

This is not to suggest that Maryland's capital defendants receive perfect trials. This is far from true, as is illustrated by the high number of appellate reversals.

Still, these reversals are significantly more often the result of judicial or prosecutorial error than of ineffective representation by defense counsel.

Stephen E. Harris Katy C. O'Donnell Baltimore

The writers are, respectively, head of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and chief of its capital defense division.

Schools must show better sense ...

In June, the city public schools twice invoked the rule that if the temperature is 90 degrees by 11 a.m., school is canceled. This means kids must line up at pay phones, many of them outside, to call parents, then wait in the sun to catch a bus or be picked up.

This is almost as foolish as the policy that says that if it's snowing in the morning, parents must leave work and drive over unplowed roads to pick up their children at noon.

Neither of these policies shows respect for the time of working parents or concern for the actual safety of students.

What is the evidence that it's more hazardous to keep children in school in hot or snowy weather than to send them home in chaotic fashion?

And how did the school year end? With a half-day of classes on a Monday. This ensures that thousands of children skip school -- not a great lesson -- or be a half-day late for the many camps and other activities that begin that day.

And what did my 12-year-old son do when he went to school? He spent much of his time sitting in a class watching Legally Blonde, a PG-13 movie.

The Baltimore school system might find it had more defenders, not to mention more students, if it showed a little more common sense.

David Brown

Baltimore

... and give up toying with the latest fads

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