Change the Legal System?

109Change the Legal System?

Commentary: Right to counsel? It’s stacked against the poor | McClatchy

It turns out there is a gulf between the 1963 promise and the 2013 reality. It turns out one lawyer can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year. It turns out public defenders are so underfunded and overwhelmed it is not uncommon for a defendant to meet his attorney for the first time in court. It turns out the situation is so dire that in at least one jurisdiction a judge pressed tax attorneys and property lawyers into service in criminal court. It turns out poor people’s justice is to justice as monkey business is to business.

Ask Clarence Jones, who spent over a year in prison just waiting for an attorney — and was still there as the book went to press — on a charge of burglary.

Ask Carol Dee Huneke, a novice lawyer with no experience in criminal law who was hired as a public defender on a Thursday and assigned a case that began Monday. She had never even seen a trial before.

And ask Greg Bright, who spent 27 years in prison on a murder charge he might have easily beaten, writes Houppert, had his court-appointed attorney done even minimal investigation on his behalf. As a later attorney discovered, the single witness the state’s case hinged upon was a mentally-ill heroin addict with a history of hallucinations who physically could not have seen what she claimed she did.

Twenty-seven years. “Make me wanna holler,” indeed.

What is reflected here is not simply incompetence but disdain, contempt for the rights, lives and humanity of the less fortunate. And perhaps your instinct is to look away, secure in the naïve delusion that no one gets arrested unless they’ve “done something.” Truth is, it happens every day.

Commentary: Right to counsel? It’s stacked against the poor | McClatchy

 

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