More Ohio death sentences are overturned because of defense lawyer mistakes than for any other reason. An analysis by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that 15 death row inmates won federal appeals in the past seven years based entirely or partly on the poor performance of their lawyers. Some lawyers never spoke to clients. Some hired unqualified experts or none. Others neglected key documents, do basic investigations, or interview their own witnesses. One attorney failed to notice when prosecutors admitted they couldn’t prove who shot the victim.
One federal judge suggested the best way to avoid execution was to hire an incompetent lawyer. “If counsel provides ineffective assistance,” wrote Judge Danny Boggs, “then the prisoner is likely to be spared, certainly for many years, and frequently forever.” “It’s a big, big problem,” said Gilbert Merritt, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. “The lawyers don’t have the wherewithal to put on a first-class defense.” Prosecutors say the real problem is judges who put too much emphasis on defense mistakes.