Two defense justice advcocacy groups say that two years after passage of the Fair Defense Act, the quality of legal representation for poor death-penalty defendants in Texas has improved but still falls woefully short of national standards, the Dallas Morning News reports.
The report, by the Equal Justice Center and the Texas Defender Service, studied plans from 33 counties that prosecute most of the state’s capital cases. According to the report, an “overwhelming majority” of those counties fail to comply with one or more of the Fair Defense Act mandates.
Moreover, the Fair Defense Act standards themselves do not meet the recommendations of the American Bar Association.
Locally, Dallas and Denton counties received failing grades, apparently because paperwork documenting their programs was not in place. State officials questioned whether the study adequately researched their practices, which they said comply with the act.
Collin and Tarrant counties received mixed grades in the study.
Andrea Keilen, an attorney with the Texas Defender Service, said the report indicates that Texas, which leads the nation in executions, still has “a long way to go before people can be assured that the system is fair and reliable and has integrity.”
The Texas Defender Service is a nonprofit law firm that represents death-row inmates; the Equal Justice Center is a nonprofit legal advocacy group
Jim Bethke, director of the state Task Force on Indigent Defense, which monitors compliance with the Fair Defense Act, said he was surprised by the report and disappointed that his group was not consulted.
Texas has made “meaningful progress” in indigent defense in recent years, he said, and he questioned the report’s methodology. “The grades appear to be based to some extent upon the authors’ subjective interpretation of what the FDA [Fair Defense Act] requires,” he said.