A Virginia man facing an eight-year prison term on two criminal charges has not had his day in an appeals court for three years, reports the Washington Post. His attorney failed to file key court papers on time, provoking the court in both instances to dismiss the case on procedural grounds. The Post’s editorial page, in a three-part series, says the case is all too common among Virginia inmates who wish to appeal their convictions. Last year, more than one in 10 of the 2,660 criminal cases before the Virginia Court of Appeals were dismissed because fees or documents were not filed with the court on time. Public defenders and court-appointed lawyers for the poor were responsible for more than 70 percent of the cases in which lawyers threw away their clients’ rights. The Post identified more than 40 attorneys who, over 15 months, appear to have blown more than one case and at least 12 who appear to have filed appeals in three or more cases that were dismissed.
The editorial page said that the problem’s magnitude “shocked us. It shocked legal experts whom we consulted. It should shock Virginia policymakers into action.” The editorial cited as part of the problem Virginia’s “indefensibly harsh procedural rules.” One day late in filing means a dismissal; other jurisdictions are more flexible. Virginia courts, says the Post, “dispose of large numbers of cases on the basis of what should be inconsequential errors.” The other big problem is that the state fails to provide adequate legal counsel to poor people accused of crimes. Virginia pays court-appointed lawyers less than any other state in the country, and these lawyers are subject to little meaningful oversight.