Via Grits For Breakfast, the head of the Innocence Project of Texas, and one of the Lone Star State’s most fascinating dinner conversationalists, Jeff Blackburn, ripped criminal defense lawyers a new one:
“The real cause of unlawful convictions in Texas is indigent defense. … I have never handled an innocence case in which a good lawyer did a good job at trial. Virtually all of [those defendants] have had court-appointed lawyers,” wrote reporter Callie Enlow, “This has made Blackburn deeply cynical about what he calls (in his typical colorful language) ‘a pretty goddamned awful’ indigent defense system in Texas.”
Jeff isn’t the sort of guy to temper his words so that no one’s feelings are hurt. I like that about him, even though others in need of a tummy rub may find him harsh.
This quote is the sort that is likely to piss off a whole lot of lawyers, most notably those who handle indigent defense. On the one hand, they are treated poorly to begin with, clients often asking if they’re “real lawyers,” assuming that the poor are given access to the third stringers if they’re real lawyers at all. To borrow from Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.
But if you look beyond the knee-jerk sensitivities of lawyers who do indigent defense, and aren’t blinded by the anger of always being treated like dirt, it becomes clear that Jeff isn’t saying that lawyers who do indigent defense suck, per se. Rather, he approaches it from the other side, the outcome end of the equation.
I have never handled an innocence case in which a good lawyer did a good job at trial.
There are lawyers defending indigent defendants who do excellent work. That means that the work of these great lawyers don’t end up before Jeff at the Innocence Project. It also means that the ones whose innocent clients come onto Jeff’s plate do so because they failed to do an adequate job at trial.
It’s unclear whether this quote was meant to push a point, rather than reflect the results of a scientific survey, but if so, then the point is clear: there is a segment of the indigent criminal defense bar that fails miserably to do its job, and these criminal defense lawyers, perhaps more than anything the cops, the prosecution, the judges can do to fail, are responsible for the convictions of innocent people.
Jeff’s view may be a matter of weight and sufficiency; We don’t have high hopes for the cops, prosecutors and judges in providing innocent defendants with due process and fairness. While it may be their job theoretically, life in the mean trenches tends not to support the belief that truth and justice are their foremost concerns. Nobody serves defendants apple pie during trial.
But the criminal defense lawyer, whether well-paid or sucking on the indigent defense teet, is the one person who is ultimately responsible for standing between the criminal defendant and the bullet aimed at his head. It’s his job to defend. The lawyer is the defendant’s last hope.
The Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, offered a list of some indigent defense lawyers’ caseloads. The numbers are insane:
That’s ten lawyers doing the work of roughly thirty. Some of these people are my friends, and I feel terribly for them, being driven so hard by judges forcing court appointments on them. Some of them have private practices as well; there is no way that this much work—doing a thorough, conscientious job on every case—leaves them any time for sleep or meals, much less fun.
For the snark-impaired, Mark is being a bit sarcastic. No one forces lawyers to take more cases than they can properly handle. The problem is money, as indigent defense can, if you couldn’t care less about how many lives you destroy, be easy money, but just not much of it. So, you make it up in volume. As always, quality and quantity don’t like each other, so something has to give so that these lawyers can enjoy a decent income. What “gives” is the lives of the innocent.
That’s where Jeff picks up the story, and why Jeff rightfully puts the blame on the last person standing between the government and the defendant. Even if every other player in the system fails, the burden remains on the defense lawyer to make up for it. Sucks, I know, and a very heavy responsibility. It’s too much for most lawyers, which is why most lawyers have no business standing in the well of a criminal court.
Some sensitive and empathetic souls will react to this brutal beating of their “best efforts under the circumstances” with a loud and angry whine. “You don’t understand,” they cry. “It’s hard out there. We need to earn a living. We have hungry children and a Porsche Boxster lease with another 18 months left.”
On the contrary, we all understand. Nobody hands us free food at Underbelly. And yes, the legal profession suffers from a structural income problem that eludes the overweight academics and the official-people staffing bar associations. Oh, we get it. But that goes to whether you want to be a lawyer or would rather become a world famous rock and roll star. If you’ve got the chops to make millions, do it.
But once you’ve made the decision to step into the well as a defendant’s last hope, it’s no longer about you, your needs, your desires, your Boxster payments. If you don’t want Jeff Blackburn saying you’re the “real cause” of innocent defendants being convicted, then do better. And if you would rather whine about your hurt feelings than put in the time and effort to represent indigent defendants zealously, then find another job.