Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes For Capital Defendants
posted by Dan Filler
Back when he was Alabama’s Attorney General, Bill Pryor used to complain that big (Northern) firms only lined up to represent capital defendants at the point of collateral challenges. Why, he’d ask, don’t they step up at the trial stage? A certain suspicion is present in this question, a suggestion that this decision is strategically designed to frustrate use of the death penalty. But as anyone experienced in criminal practice will tell you, it is easiest to prevent a death sentence at the trial stage – either by squeezing out a plea deal, winning at trial (really, almost impossible in capital cases, unless you roll the dice and give up any hope of showing forgiveness in the sentencing phase, should it occur), or “winning” life at the punishment hearing. (One caveat here: in Alabama, where judges override jury verdicts of life in order to further their own political ambitions, all the good lawyering in the world can lead to nothing. As a result, an Alabama capital defendant may actually do better on appeal than at trial. The fact that this is true shows the perversity of the Alabama override system.)
So why don’t these excellent, well-funded counsel take cases at trial? There are presumably a few reasons. One is that trials are harder and more expensive to handle when your office is 1000 miles away. A second is that firms may actually prefer that their junior associates get the experience of working on what (probably incorrectly) appear to be more law-based collateral challenges. (They also aren’t interested in giving up the large chunk of attorney time required to handle a trial.) But a third reason, I suspect, is that the lawyers in these firms just don’t feel up to the task of trying a capital case. They don’t think they have the proper background; they may even think it would be malpractice. It’s easy to picture a partner at Simpson, Thacher saying “I’ve never tried a criminal case in my life…let alone one in Alabama.”
It is one of the curiosities of capital work that the leaders in the field have successfully convinced many other good lawyers (and not just Big Law lawyers from out of state) that you shouldn’t take a capital case without a commitment of serious time and a strong background in criminal and capital practice. They’re right, of course. The problem is that when these good lawyers pass on capital cases, defendants in many jurisdictions end up with a mediocre or downright terrible lawyer. The attorneys who ultimately handle the case may have tried dozens of criminal matters, but they aren’t necessarily sophisticated or talented practitioners. They may never gave given a thought to the difference between guilt/innocence and the penalty phase. They may accept mediocre attorney/client relations that make it impossible to sell a young client on a plea of life without parole. And they may dedicate what seems to them a reasonable 30 or 40 hours to prepping the case.
When I first considered starting a capital defense clinic at Alabama, a friend who’d formerly worked at a Death Penalty Resource Center counseled me against it. He correctly believed that I was too overtaxed to dedicate the time such a clinic truly required. But I created a model that worked – reasonably well, though not perfectly – because it struck me that, in Alabama, in the year 2002 (and still today), perfection really can be the enemy of the good. I’m not sure I was right in setting up that clinic, but I hope that if nothing else, we trained a few lawyers to worry about exactly these questions.