The Austin American-Statesman this morning begins a major two-day series on problems with Texas habeas review. It's an absolute must-read. The series front is here.
Today's primary article, "Sloppy lawyers failing clients on death row," is here.
Whatever their condition, these pieces of shoddy legal work have been tolerated by the state's highest criminal court for 11 years — during which 273 men and women were executed — despite a state law requiring the court to ensure that the condemned receive competent legal help.
The court has failed in that obligation, allowing lawyers to submit sloppy, lazy and inferior work with little oversight and no fear of consequences, according to an Austin American-Statesman examination that raises troubling questions about the quality of death penalty justice in the nation's leading execution state.
"People aren't being executed; they're being murdered by their lawyers," said Don Vernay, a New Mexico appeals lawyer who represents several Texas death row inmates. "I've been doing this for 20 years. I'm no wet-behind-the-ears law school graduate, but I have never seen anything this bad."
It's accompanied by two sidebars. "Complaint attempts to force State Bar to levy punishment," is here.
Appalled at the low quality of many death penalty appeals, a State Bar of Texas committee took an unprecedented and dramatic step: It authorized one of its members to file a grievance early this year against habeas lawyer Mark Alexander of McAllen.
If the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would not enforce standards for writs of habeas corpus, committee members believed it was time for lawyers to begin policing themselves.
The other sidebar, "Attorney cuts, pastes client's letter," is here.
The appeal that Greenville attorney Toby Wilkinson filed for death row inmate Daniel Acker in 2003 reads as if it were written by someone with an eighth-grade education.
In fact, most of it was.
Wilkinson lifted 90 percent of the arguments in his writ of habeas corpus from a letter that Acker wrote from death row. In it Acker, a high school dropout convicted of killing his Hopkins County girlfriend, listed three dozen mistakes he believed his trial lawyers made. Riddled with misspellings, bad grammar and first-person rants, the writ features such turns of phrase as "trumped up bogus case," and "applicant had to just sit quietly and let the D.A. railroad him."
Staff writer Chuck Lindell also has, "Supreme Court may be headed toward raising standards." LINK
By failing to ensure quality death penalty appeals, Texas risks a backlash from the U.S. Supreme Court that could put its capital punishment system in jeopardy, a constitutional scholar says.
Three high court opinions since 2000 have recognized that providing defendants facing a death sentence with effective, competent lawyers at their trials is crucial to the proper administration of the death penalty.
Though none of those opinions applied to the lawyers handling death row appeals, the trend suggests a move toward requiring effective lawyers at all levels of death penalty representation, said Eric Freedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University and a leading habeas practitioner.
To do so, however, the court must revisit a 17-year-old precedent that found that death row inmates have no constitutional right to an appointed habeas lawyer.
The series concludes tomorrow.