Bladimir Analco Aquino was convicted in a 1998 robbery and assault in Washington State. His court-appointed attorney, Guillermo Romero, failed to capitalize on weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, says the Seattle Times. Romero kept getting work as a public defender despite client complaints and bar investigations. He is facing possible disbarment for an alleged theft. For more than eight years, he worked as a public defender in Central Washington’s Grant County. To as many as 1,000 clients – poor, desperate, often despised – he was all that stood between an accusation and prison. He was supposed to punch holes in weak cases, to intercept police and prosecutors when they ran afoul, to investigate and analyze and advocate. But legal basics eluded him. In a rape case, he once filed a motion seeking “D and A testing.” What he meant was DNA. He gave lousy advice, according to disciplinary officials. You can’t appeal, he told one client, when the client certainly could. You can leave the country before trial, he told another, when the client certainly could not. He didn’t object when a prosecutor compared his client to Hitler. He didn’t object when the same prosecutor argued that everyone who goes to rock concerts uses drugs. He didn’t object when police transcribed the tape-recorded statement of a teenage murder suspect and inserted damning words the boy never uttered. The last time Romero won a trial in Grant County Superior Court was in 1997. His record since then is zero and 23.
Grant County illustrates the flaws in implementation of the 41-year-old Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which sought to guarantee poor persons a competent defense. Two-thirds of Washington counties, including Grant, pay for public defense through contracts that typically pay a fixed amount no matter how many cases come through their courts. That can leave public defenders less time per case, and lead to adversarial breakdowns.
Last spring, Romero quit working as a public defender; he is waiting for the Washington Supreme Court to decide whether to strip him of his law license. The Post-Intelligencer tells the story of how he got his job and kept it for so long?
Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, calls Gideon “one of the most universally accepted Supreme Court decisions.” But Bright says that no constitutional right presents a greater divide between promise and reality. “We wax poetically about justice for all, and on Law Day attorneys get together and reminisce about Fred Turner representing Clarence Gideon at his retrial and winning an acquittal,” Bright says. “And yet you go into courthouses all over the country, and what you see is not at all what is being celebrated. What you see is people being processed like widgets on an assembly line.”