A review by McClatchy Newspapers of recent death-penalty cases in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia provides, for the first time, an assessment of how commonplace failures by defense attorneys have become. McClatchy reviewed trial transcripts and appeal records and interviewed lawyers for 80 men and women who were sentenced to death from 1997 through 2004 in those states. The review found:
In 73 of the 80 cases, defense lawyers gave jurors little or no evidence to help them decide whether the accused should live or die. The lawyers missed myriad issues of abuse and mental deficiency, abject poverty and serious psychological problems. By failing to investigate their clients’ histories, lawyers fell far short of the 20-year-old professional standards set by the American Bar Association. Appeals courts for the most part have ducked Supreme Court directives about the importance of quality defense counsel. So far, only two of the 80 death sentences have been overturned for bad lawyering. In 11 of the cases, the defendants already have been executed. In Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi, this poor legal representation is a result of official policy. The states pay no more than a pittance to help lawyers defend their clients, and none requires that well-trained attorneys handle death cases. Georgia had an inadequate system until 2005, when a publicly funded, statewide capital defenders office began spending whatever is necessary to scour clients’ backgrounds for mitigating evidence. So far, none of that office’s 46 clients has been sentenced to death. “For government, this is the ultimate policy decision outside of going to war,” said Kenneth Starr, a former federal judge and independent counsel. Starr, dean of Pepperdine University School of Law, has represented death-row inmates on appeal. “We are going to sit in judgment of one of our own and take their life. Not doing it right is unspeakably shameful,” said Starr, who supports capital punishment.