Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A step forward

Recently we blogged about an outstanding investigative series published by Chuck Lindell of the Austin American-Statesman that exposed serious deficiencies in the way some death penalty appellate lawyers in Texas represent their clients.

The implications of these deficiencies are, literally, a life-and-death matter. Several innocent people have been executed in Texas, and these are just the cases that we know about. Habeas review is a critical cornerstone of our criminal justice system. More than 100 people have been freed from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged; usually, this happens as a result of information that comes out during habeas appeals.

Today the Austin American-Statesman reported that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has adopted new guidelines intended to make sure that death penalty appellate lawyers do a decent job of representing their clients. This is a welcome step, a step in the right direction. Here are excerpts from the American-Statesman's story from today's paper:

The state's highest criminal court, criticized for tolerating shoddy appeals filed on behalf of death row inmates, adopted new rules Monday to begin weeding out attorneys whose work falls below professional standards.

When the rules take effect Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will be able to sanction lawyers who submit sloppy, lazy, inferior death-row appeals a significant shift for the nine-member court. The court previously had no mechanism in place to identify poorly performing lawyers or to remove them from a court-run list of attorneys eligible to submit, at state or county expense, writs of habeas corpus for death row inmates.

Habeas writs are considered the more important of two appeals given to the condemned in Texas, but a recent Austin American-Statesman review of the appeals system found that the court tolerated lawyers who regularly submitted writs that were incomplete, unintelligible or improperly argued.

Mandy Welch, a Houston lawyer who teaches continuing education courses on habeas law, was heartened by the changes, though she wanted to observe the court's interpretation of the rules before offering wholehearted approval. "Reviewing a lawyer's performance is critical to ensuring that people areproperly represented, and this is at least a move in the right direction,"Welch said.

The Statesman series, which ran Oct. 29 and 30, examined habeas lawyers who simply copied from their previous appeals or from other attorneys, whether the facts applied to their current case or not, or who recycled claims that have been denied time and again while ignoring obvious avenues of investigation.One lawyer submitted a writ copied almost entirely from his client's letters from death row, including this memorable passage: "I'm just about out of carbon paper. As soon as I get some more typing supplies I have about 30 more errors I want . . . in my appeal."

1 comment:

ruthie said...

this is good news - will the Courts now look at the professional and ethical standards of the prosecutors to ensure they too are held to account for any improprieties?