Twenty-one years ago, an intruder broke into a home in
But the young girl told officers she was only “60 to 65 percent” certain she had picked the right man and at trial said she was “not too sure.”
The prosecution’s case rested on the victim’s identification and the discovery of several hairs found on her bed sheets. The manager of the state’s crime laboratory testified there was less than a one-in-10,000 chance the hairs belonged to someone other than Bromgard – a statistic, it turned out, the state’s witness had fabricated.
Bromgard’s court-assigned lawyer never hired a forensic expert, nor did he conduct an independent investigation. He filed no motions to suppress the shaky identification, gave no opening statement, prepared no closing statement and failed to file an appeal. Convicted, Bromgard spent more than 14 years in prison before the Innocence Project used DNA analysis of semen stains to show Bromgard was innocent.
There have been hundreds of similar cases in the
“There is simply no better way to prevent wrongful convictions than to provide competent defense counsel,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, in testimony before Congress several months after Bromgard was exonerated. “Competent counsel can uncover police practices responsible for misidentifications, coerced or false confessions and fraudulent forensic science.”
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes the right to counsel in federal criminal prosecution. Through a series of landmark decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has extended that right to all criminal prosecutions – state and federal, felony and misdemeanor – where a conviction can result in imprisonment. If someone cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court must assign one. Counsel can be a staff public defender, a private lawyer who accepts such cases for a fee or a contract lawyer who has won a bid to provide these services. Roughly 80 to 85 percent of all criminal defendants in state courts, where the bulk of crimes are prosecuted, are indigent and represented by some kind of public counsel. The annual cost to states and counties is more than $3.5 billion a year.
But many public defense lawyers and researchers argue that much more needs to be spent because too many indigent defense systems are in crisis. “I know that because I spend my life traveling around the country and visiting public defenders and court systems,” says Robert Spangenberg, whose firm has conducted research for justice organizations in every state. “We have public defender systems in the country where one public defender will handle 1,000 cases in a year,” he says. “What kind of representation could one provide with that caseload?”
In 2004, the American Bar Association (ABA) published a report on the state of indigent defense after holding a series of public hearings. Among its findings:
- Funding for indigent defense is “shamefully inadequate,” often leading to overwhelming caseloads and ineffective representation;
- Lawyers are often poorly trained and poorly supervised;
- Prosecutors “too often” seek waivers of counsel and guilty pleas from the unrepresented accused;
- Judges and elected officials often exercise undue influence over indigent defense lawyers.
But not all agree with the
Besides, says LaBahn, where funding is tight, prosecutors suffer, too. “Both public defenders and prosecutors are burdened by high caseloads and high turnover.”
Low salaries lead to high turnover. The Miami-Dade County State Attorneys Office lost just under half its lawyers in 2005 and 2006; the public defender’s office lost a third.
With economists warning the
Still, it’s a tough year for states, too, with seven particularly hard hit, according to Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association. “They are primarily the states that rode up the housing bubble and are now riding it down,” says Scheppach, “and are pretty much in recession.” The seven are
Some public defender systems already have been told to make cuts, and at least one is fighting back. In Illinois, the Cook County Public Defender, whose territory includes Chicago, sued the Cook County Board president after his staff was trimmed from about 485 in recent years to as low as 430 in 2007. In
In fact, a recent study reports that after three decades of growth in
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