The resources of the justice system are often stacked against poor defendants. Matters only become worse when a person is represented by an ineffective, incompetent, or overburdened defense lawyer. The failure of overworked lawyers to investigate, call witnesses, or prepare for trial has led to the conviction of innocent people. When a defense lawyer doesn’t do his or her job, the defendant suffers. Shrinking funding and access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys is only making the problem worse. Indeed, within our region, the issues of funding are receiving national attention. These deficiencies are well-documented. The Missouri Supreme Court found that “The statewide public defender system … had the capacity [in fiscal year 2009] to spend only 7.7 hours per case, including trial, appellate and capital cases.” State ex rel. Mo. Pub. Defender Comm’n v. Pratte, 298 S.W.3d 870, 873 (Mo. 2009) (en banc). Recently, the Missouri State Public Defender filed suit, arguing that its budget is being unfairly slashed and that representation is suffering.
Asleep on the job
A review of convictions overturned by DNA testing reveals a trail of sleeping, drunk, incompetent, and overworked defense attorneys, at the trial level and on appeal. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Innocent defendants are convicted or plead guilty in this country with less than adequate defense representation. In the some of the worst cases, lawyers have:
- slept in the courtroom during trial.
- been disbarred shortly after finishing a death penalty case.
- failed to investigate alibis.
- failed to call or consult experts on forensic issues.
- failed to show up for hearings.
Good defense means fair justice
There are ways to stop wrongful convictions from happening due to ineffective representation. These reforms include increased funding to create and expand full-time public defender offices where defenders can receive proper training and oversight. Statutory caps on the number of cases assigned at one time to defense lawyers will lessen the oppressive burden, allowing lawyers to spend the time necessary to thoroughly investigate and litigate each case.