Death Penalty Defense Lawyers: There's a Continuum

When I asked Terry what he thought about the recent Slate article, “ The Worst Lawyers: Death sentences are down across the country—except for where one of these guys is the defense attorney,” he said that what law professor Stephen Bright wrote twenty years ago is still true today: all too often, the death penalty is handed down not “for the worst crime, but for the worst lawyer.” (Bright is quoted in the Slate article).

It goes without saying that capital punishment is sought in cases where all too often, the defendant is indigent. That means that they are appointed counsel as their constitutional right.

In what situation can you imagine where it’s more important to have a dedicated, compassionate, experienced, and smart lawyer than in a case where the prosecution is seeking the death penalty?

Yet all too often, as Terry pointed out, there are some very bad (I won’t use his exact adjectives; explicatives deleted) lawyers out there who are all too happy to take on capital punishment representations.

That’s one end of the continuum. But there IS a continuum.

Some of the Best and the Brightest Defend Capital Cases

There are lawyers in this country who are dedicated to representing people who are facing death penalty convictions (or are trying to have death penalty sentences reversed on appeal). They are not choosing this practice area because they want money or glory — if they were, there are plenty of other areas of the law that are better suited to those goals.  

They made a choice.  Or maybe their hearts made the decision for them.  

These are top-notch lawyers who enter a courtroom where the battle isn’t for money or years behind bars: it’s life versus death. They are passionate — and very good at what they do.

Yes, the Slate article is right. But it’s not the whole story.

Good lawyering is paramount in capital cases; and while there are bad lawyers representing defendants in capital cases, you will find some of the most honorable and (yes) noble of our profession are doing the same thing.

Do You Know About the Florida Capital Resource Center?

Like Terence Lenamon.  Like those that work for and/or support the non-profit organization Terry co-founded, the Florida Capital Resource Center.

Maybe you know a few names to add to that list; feel free to share them in the comments. 

From the Florida Capital Resource Center website:

History & Overview | Where we began & where we are going...

Florida Capital Resource Center was founded in 2009 by Terence "Terry" Lenamon, a renowned capital defense attorney in Miami, Florida, and Cynthia "Cindy" O'Shea, a talented defense attorney-turned-mitigation specialist who works with Terry on many of his capital cases.

Terry and Cindy believed that Florida's capital justice system was (and still is) in a state of emergency because capital defense attorneys are often underfunded, under-qualified, or simply unmotivated to provide effective representation, particularly in cases involving indigent defendants.

Though vast amounts of taxpayer dollars are spent on the administration of Florida's death penalty, budget cuts and poor legislation have reduced critical public defender resources and act to discourage talented private attorneys from registering for court-appointment.

To help counter that growing and alarming problem, Terry and Cindy decided to create a nonprofit organization that would provide a place where capital defense attorneys could find death penalty-related information and trial materials. They commissioned a website designed to house a clearinghouse of materials, and those materials are constantly expanding.

Since its inception in 2009, FCRC's mission has expanded and its goals have broadened. Today, the mission of Florida Capital Resource Center is to assist indigent defendants facing the death penalty by providing consultation, research, training, advocacy, and other necessary resources to capital defenders state-wide.

Recognizing the "uneven playing field" inherent in the defense of impoverished individuals on trial for their lives (and the gross limitations of post-conviction remedies, even in the most constitutionally-violative cases), FCRC attempts to ensure that long-standing inequities are mitigated or abolished.

FCRC operates in multiple venues, including standing with those seeking statutory and rule changes intended to remove injustice from all relevant aspects of death penalty law and practice.

Working with other organizations (both local and national), FCRC seeks to protect the constitutional rights of Florida's capital defendants by increasing access to critical resources, thereby improving the level of representation provided by Florida's capital defense bar.

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