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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Report: Thousands Wrongly Convicted Each Year

Thousands of suspects unable to afford lawyers are wrongly convicted each year because they are pressured to accept guilty pleas or have incompetent attorneys, the American Bar Association says in a report.

The study by a committee of the nation's largest lawyers' group says that legal representation of indigents is in "a state of crisis." These defendants are at constant risk of wrongful conviction and unjust punishment, including the death penalty, according to the study being released Friday.

"The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume apply to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States," the study states. "All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights."

The ABA committee wants Congress and local governments to spend more money and create oversight groups to guard against shoddy legal representation. Judges also are asked to be more vigilant in ensuring defendants have competent counsel.

It has been more than 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled the government must provide legal counsel to indigent defendants who are charged with serious crimes.

The report comes one week after President Bush called for more training for lawyers who represent accused killers and greater use of DNA testing. That proposal is not on the agenda at the ABA winter meeting in Salt Lake City, which runs through Tuesday.

The ABA study points to people like Brandon Moon of Kansas City, Mo., who served nearly 17 years for the rape of an El Paso, woman before DNA tests determined he was not responsible; and Ryan Matthews, a Louisiana man who sat on death row for five years before he was exonerated.

More than 150 people who were convicted in 31 states and the District of Columbia served a total of 1,800 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. All were exonerated due to DNA evidence.

"The challenge is coming up with politically viable ways to fix the problem," said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who tracks death penalty cases. "The long-term costs of underfunding defense counsel are hard to see when a state is facing budget crises.

"Needless to say, criminals or accused criminals are not a very powerful lobby or a group that particularly draws sympathy for more dollars and cents," Berman said.

The report also pointed to negligent or otherwise unprepared lawyers, leading to faulty convictions or more serious punishment. No formal training existed for lawyers for the indigent in Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, which puts more people to death than any other state.

In the majority of states surveyed, money for prosecutors outpaced public defenders. For example, California allocates defense counsel an average of $60.90 for every $100 the prosecution receives.

In the South, the report cited a problem of "meet 'em and plead 'em lawyers" where lawyers in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia often negotiate a plea agreement the first day they meet their clients.

In Texas, Rhode Island and elsewhere, legal experts reported incdances where indigent clients languished in jail for months without access to a lawyer or were improperly urged by prosecutors to accept plea deals without a lawyer present.

The report recommends that:

_states provide money for public defenders that is on par with prosecutors.

_states establish oversight organizations to police potential abuses such as forced plea agreements or otherwise negligent or inadequate counsel.

_lawyers refuse new cases if workloads are so excessive that id would substantially impair their defense preparation.

_judges report prosecutors who seek to obtain waivers of counsel and guilty pleas that are not voluntary and on the record.

The study was based on research and testimony gathered from 22 states. The states are: Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.


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