What the U.S. Supreme Court is Telling Attorneys Representing Defendants in Death Penalty Cases - Considering Porter and VanHook

In yesterday's New York Times, Professor Linda Greenhouse gives us a thought-provoking analysis of the "selective empathy" of the current U.S. Supreme Court as she compares the recent decisions in Porter v. McCollum (Porter lives) and Bobby v. Van Hook (VanHook dies).  After discussing in detail both opinions, Greenhouse concludes:

Setting the Porter and the Van Hook cases side by side, what strikes me is how similarly horrific the two men's childhoods were -- indeed, how common such childhoods were among the hundreds of death-row inmates whose appeals I have read over the years and, I have to assume, among the 3,300 people on death row today. It is fanciful to suppose that each of these defendants had lawyers who made the effort to dig up the details and offer these sorry life stories to the jurors who would weigh their fate.

I don't make that observation to excuse the crimes of those on death row, but only to underscore the anomaly of the mercy the court bestowed this week on one of that number. Am I glad that a hapless 77-year-old man won't be put to death by the State of Florida? Yes, I am. Am I concerned about a Supreme Court that dispenses empathy so selectively? Also yes.

Those who represent defendants facing prosecutors arguing in courtrooms that the accused should die at the hands of the state undoubtedly understand Professor Greenhouse's acknowledgement that most folk setting on Death Row in this country have horrific personal histories.

The tragedy of Death Row goes far beyond the underlying crime and the suffering of the victim and the victim's loved ones - there's also the path woven through the past by the defendant to that fateful day when a crime was committed, a path with its own pain and shocking trauma. Porter's case typifies this, as does Van Hook's - and each of the Supreme Court opinions provide the details.

Comparing Porter and VanHook From a Criminal Defense Practitioner's Perspective

However, both these unanimous, per curiam decisions have more to tell us, the legal practitioners who have devoted our lives to the defense of individuals charged with capital crimes and facing the death penalty. In both opinions, the quality of the underlying representation of Van Hook and Porter were at issue. Both alleged ineffective assistance of counsel -- and it was upon this appellate point that the two cases reached the high court.

From this perspective, we must read Porter and Van Horn side by side without a focus upon the underlying facts of the crimes and instead ask ourselves if the minimally acceptable standard of representation was provided in each case. Without emotion. Lawyer to lawyer.

When this is done, and the examples provided by the Justices are considered (and they do give examples), then a disparity can be seen. A disparity that explains the different results in Porter and Van Horn in a way that a comparison of the crimes and the two condemned men cannot.  And it also explains how both opinions could have unanimous, per curiam results. 

Viewed in this way, Porter and Van Horn remind the criminal defense bar that each and every time a defense attorney undertakes the representation of a defendant in a case where the prosecutor is zealous to pursue the death penalty, there is nothing more important than what that defense lawyer does.

We, the attorneys defending against death, stand in the gap between life and death by our own level of care and attention to detail in the work that we do. Our focus cannot be upon the horror of our client's background (though we sympathize) nor with any public repulsion of the crime at issue and their sometimes disgust with us, as counsel, for defending our clientele.

Our focus must always be upon doing the absolute best job that we can in the defense of each and every case. It is our duty to review our own efforts to insure we are providing "effective assistance of counsel" long before any appellate court begins its review of any ineffectiveness.

This week's Justin Heyne Case Demonstrates the Two Trials Involved in a Death Penalty Case

Yesterday, the jury came back in the murder trial of Justin Heyne.  The 12 jurors found Heyne guilty of the March 2006 murder of his roommates, Sarah Buckowski and Benjamin Hamilton and their 5-year-old daughter, Ivory. 

The verdict was read to a packed courtroom.  Mr. Heyne stood to hear his fate in a dark blue suit, his defense attorney at his side.  His family and the families of the victims all sat in the pews, witnessing the court clerk reading the jury's decision for each of the three crimes -- everyone hearing "guilty"  three times over.

That was the end of the first trial.

In every death penalty case, there are two trials.  Justin Heyne would have had nothing more to try if the jury had found him innocent.  However, because three guilty verdicts were read, there is now the matter of sentencing.  And with that, a sentencing trial to determine what a fair sentence should be.

The first trial took one week.  (It already took a week to pick the jury.)  Now, on Wednesday morning, that same jury resumes its position in the jury box of a Brevard County courtroom as the second trial begins.

The sentencing trial (the "penalty phase")

In the sentencing trial, more documentary evidence and witness testimony will be provided to the jury.  Aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances will be addressed, as the defense attorneys argue that Heyne should not die by lethal injection but instead serve three mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole. 

Whether the State of Florida should kill Justin Heyne is being decided in this second trial.

And, the jury doesn't decide this all alone.  The twelve jurors vote on a "recommendation" (it doesn't have to be unanimous) and this recommendation is taken into consideration by the trial court judge.  It is the judge who makes the ultimate decision. 

As we've discussed earlier, the Florida statutes list the aggravating factors that the prosecutor can prove with proper evidence to argue for capital punishment.  Florida law also lists the mitigating factors that the defense can use to fight for Heyne to live. 

The Grandmother Doesn't Want the Death Penalty

Something the jury may not hear (unless the defense provides it to them) is the position of Juanita Perez, the mother of Benjamin Hamilton and grandmother of  Ivory.  Perez doesn't want Heyne to die.

In fact, for many months now, Juanita Perez pushed the State Attorney to accept Heyne's offer to plead guilty to all three murders in exchange for three life sentences.   Why?  Juanita Perez understands the lengthy appellate process that will insue after the sentencing phase is completed in this case, and she doesn't want her family to have to live through those years and years of appeals. 

However, this mitigating factor -- the desires of the victims' mother and grandmother for closure -- has been ignored by the State, and they're fighting for Justin Heyne to die.   Sure, the prosecutor is using the standard response: the crime was heinous (a child was killed), other relatives aren't as strident as Mrs. Perez here, etc., etc.

Still, one has to wonder why the prosecutors are pushing for death when Ivory's own grandmother isn't wanting Justin to die for Ivory's murder.  It's up to the defense team to bring this very important circumstance to bear in the sentencing determination.   Just one more example of how important every due process step of a death penalty case can be, and how important qualified death penalty counsel are in a capital punishment case. 

In Depth Look at the Law: The Judges' Dilemma: They Have to Meet the Constitutional Mandate of an Indigent Defendant's Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel

At this juncture, we've got lots of criminal defendants needing constitutionally-guaranteed representation, and an overwhelmed public defender's office as well as a beleaguered OCCCRC. So, who's next at bat? The private attorney licensed by the State of Florida.

Let's consider the complex criminal case. Major felonies, multiple defendants. Criminal cases that involve more than two indigent co-defendants (or any case where both the Public Defender and the OCCCRC both have a conflict of interest) are handled by private criminal defense attorneys, who are then paid by the government for their time and expenses. Chapter 2007-62, § 27.40(2)(a), Fla. Stat. (2007).

How Big Was the Loss of Attorneys Willing to Take Appointments after 2007? Huge. HUGE.

Earlier, we discussed how the 2007 revision to the appointment statutes caused many criminal defense attorneys to take their names off the county lists of attorneys voluntarily making themselves available for appointment. It was not because these attorneys didn't want to represent the poor people of Florida - the changes in the statute made it impossible for them to do so. Many defense attorneys simply could not afford to do the work and stay open for business.

One news report has shown that after the Legislature's action in 2007, the appointment list for the Tenth Judicial Circuit dropped sixty percent (60%), leaving just one (yes, 1) lawyer who was legally qualified to defend someone, as lead attorney, in a capital case. (Don't you know that is one busy lawyer?)

Practically speaking, in the criminal courtrooms of Florida, defendants continue to come before the bench and announce themselves as unable to pay for legal counsel on their own. According to Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S. Ct. 791 (1963) and its progeny, these folk are still deserving of legal assistance (the proverbial "effective assistance of counsel" under the 6th Amendment) and the government must provide them with an attorney. The judge has a legal duty he must meet.
Faced with Gideon, what are Florida Judges doing? Throwing attorneys under the bus sounds harsh, unless you're the attorney caught in the crossfire. Because that judge has to find an attorney somewhere, and the Legislature isn't giving that judge much of a choice.

What's to be done, when you are a judge facing a multiple defendant murder case and the demands of Gideon v. Wainwright? Well, if you're Circuit Judge Michael Hunter, setting in Polk County, you call over to your fellow judge in Hillsborough County and try and borrow a qualified lawyer. See if they'll travel over the county line and try and case or two. And maybe they will. If the travel's not too bad, and the county will cover the travel expenses, and his firm can handle the financial burden, maybe a dedicated defense attorney in the neighboring county will be available to help out.

It would be nice if the answer was as simple as "borrowing" from your neighbor. It's not. The other county may not have anyone to offer up.

The Involuntary Appointment List Begins Because Judges Need to Find Attorneys Somehow

Which leave judges frustrated and needing to move on their dockets. The judges' solution? They're just creating "involuntary appointments list" with all the local lawyers who hold themselves out as criminal defense attorneys being listed, A to Z. Then, the judges are making appointments from that list: picking names of attorneys at random, out of a hat as it were, with no consideration of the lawyer's finances, or more importantly for the client, the amount of his or her criminal defense experience.

In the short run, this is getting a lawyer with an indigent client. How well that client will be represented is at issue here, as is what the long term ramifications are to these members of the bar.

The Elephant in the Room: The Fifth Amendment Applies Here, Too.

Apparently, the crisis in counsel is so great that no one is looking much at the elephant in the room. Under the precedent long established by the Florida Supreme Court, even when the Sixth Amendment rights of criminal defendants to effective counsel are involved, the law does not allow unacceptably low, "token" compensation for these attorneys. And this is true when the attorneys have voluntarily undertaken the caseload, much less where they have been appointed via an Involuntary Appointment List. Makemson v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners, 491 So. 2d 1109 (Fla. 1986); White v. Bd. of Cty. Commissioners, 537 So. 2d 1376 (Fla. 1989). It seems obvious that adequate compensation must be legally provided to attorneys who have been drafted into duty by frustrated judges.

Why? Aren't all lawyers rich? Easy answer is NO. And, even those who are successful won't stay successful long if they are involuntarily assigned to represent a defendant in a complex, time-consuming case essentially for free. There are so many hours in a day, and days in a week. If you're working on the appointment, you cannot be working on the case that generates revenue to pay the office salaries, the overhead, etc.

Kansas Supreme Court Gives the Answer the Legislature Doesn't Want to Hear: Pay the Lawyer or Dismiss the Defendant

Just as the Sixth Amendment protects the rights of the accused to legal representation, there are federal and state laws that protect the rights of the lawyer not to be forced out of business by involuntary servitude via judicial appointment. The truth is that these big appointments are the death's knell for many a criminal practice. And, according to the Kansas Supreme Court (which has already dealt with a lot of these same issues), the Fifth Amendment is violated when an attorney necessarily spending an "unreasonable" amount of time on indigent appointments in order to be effective is then caused a "genuine and substantial interference with his or her private practice[.]" State ex rel Stephen v. Smith, 747 P.2d 816, 835-36, 842 (Kansas 1987).

The Kansas Court succinctly identifies that elephant in the room: "[t]he obligation to provide counsel for indigent defendants is that of the State, not of the individual attorney". Id. at 850-51.

What if the money isn't there? Kansas answers: charges against indigent defendants must be dismissed if the government cannot provide adequate compensation to their attorneys.

What about those pro bono requirements?

Phooey. That dog won't hunt. The Florida Bar "suggests" 20 hours/year as charitable service for each attorney licensed in the state (Fla. Bar R. Prof. Cond. 4-6.1(b)). It's almost insulting to suggest that pro bono considerations should apply to the months of solid work that is required to effectively represent criminal defendants in major cases.

For over half a century now, there has been debate about whether or not attorneys are working as a profession or as a business. Clearly (look at the precedent dealing with lawyer advertising for details on this), it has been clearly established that law firms are run for profit, they are businesses, and there's nothing sinister or to be ashamed of because of this truth and fact. Pro bono work is a worthwhile activity. It is not meant to supplant the daily operations of the law firm.

Next week: The Ethical Duties of the Criminal Defense Attorney in Representing the Indigent

In-Depth Look at the Law: The Offices of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel (OCCCRC) - An Unacceptable Situation for Everyone Involved

One attempt at solving the indigent defense problem was the creation of a state agency made up of five offices to be called Offices of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel ("OCCCRC") by the Florida Legislature in Chapter 2007-62. The idea was that full-time attorneys on a set salary in these new regional offices would theoretically solve at least part of the judicial appointment problem by taking on public defender cases where there was a conflict of interest (which is common in multi-defendant cases) -- as well as supervising court-appointed attorneys in child dependency cases and assorted civil actions. Sounded good.

Truth is, the OCCCRC lawyers haven't even been given a fair shake, they've been asked to play the game without a full deck of cards. The OCCCRCs aren't even getting the basics to do their job.

For example, the Fourth District OCCCRC has complained that it doesn't even have ordinary supplies and internet access for months at a time. In today's world, how can an attorney represent a client effectively without internet access? Legal research, communication and filing with the courts, e-mail, etc. are all done over the internet. How any lawyer at the OCCCRC can practice law each day is a miracle in action, and my hat is off to them. No wonder there's such a high turnover there.

And, adding insult to injury, these OCCCRCs are being sued. That's right - they have become defendants in their own right. Apparently, several counties throughout Florida have taken the position that OCCCRCs are not "public defender offices" at all under Florida law. Using this legal argument, counties aren't legally responsible to pay for the expenses of their local OCCCRC (pursuant to Article V, section 14 of the Florida Constitution).

In May 2009, a Boca Raton Circuit Court Judge agreed with 25 Florida counties and ruled that the legislation that shifted judicial costs from the state to the counties was unconstitutional. According to the Circuit Court, the Florida legislature failed to find "that the law fulfills an important state interest before attempting the cost shift." This ruling now goes before the Florida Supreme Court, who has already heard arguments that the enacting language creating the agency was invalid and ruled that the OCCCRCs do pass constitutional muster.

Meanwhile, despite the lawsuits and the antiquainted working environment (do they even have computers? If so, how old are they?), some OCCCRCs just keep getting more and more work. Last year, the Third District OCCCRC was ordered by Judge Judge Stanford Blake of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit to take all new Class C felonies arising in Miami-Dade County, because the Public Defender there could not handle any more defendants because their caseloads were so high and their monies were being cut, too.

What are we talking about here? About 1500 new cases/month. Think about that. Fifteen hundred new cases a month to defend in a court of law, and you don't have internet access. Right.

So, right now the OCCCRCs keep operating, lawyers doing the best they can with the tools they've been given, and whether or not county coffers will have to pay for part of the OCCCRC budget costs is still a conflict worthy of Supreme Court review.

Next week: The Judges' dilemma - they have to meet the mandate of Gideon v. Wainwright.

In Depth Look at the Law: Florida's System of Insuring Legal Representation for the Indigent Must Be Changed

In our new series, we'll be looking at Florida's indigent defense system, particularly as it applies to cases where capital punishment is being sought. How are attorneys chosen and compensated for representing the criminal defendant who is without funds to pay for his own defense, especially those facing the death penalty? How is Florida's current indigent defense system critically flawed?

The Florida Legislature Provides for Compensation of Attorneys Who Represent Poor (Indigent) Criminal Defendants in State Matters

First, let's review the action of the Florida Legislature in the past few years. Before the current system was put in place, Florida provided for indigent criminal defense through Chapter 27 of the Florida Statutes. There, a collection of private criminal defense attorneys offered themselves for appointment by the courts in the defense of impoverished defendants in criminal cases under Judicial Administrative Commission (JAC) contracts. The attorneys worked on behalf of their clients, who were entitled to representation by an attorney under the law. In return, these attorneys were compensated by the government.

The 2007 Changes by the Florida Legislature Made Appointments Financially Not Viable for Most Criminal Defense Attorneys

The Chapter 27 system was changed, however. Under the new statutes, Chapter 2007-62, Florida indigent criminal defense effectively discouraged attorneys from placing their names on the list for court appointments and JAC contracts. This occurred in several ways:

1. It set up a lower flat fee system, cutting the rates that had been established under the prior statute and ignoring how costly in time and money some of the criminal defense cases - even routine ones - can become for the defense lawyer.

2. In complex cases, it continued to allow an avenue for attorneys to apply for the right to bill real time at an hourly rate, but it did so in such a way that was complicated, time-intensive, and quite frankly, frustrating in its bureaucracy. (The attorney had to go through many more procedural hoops to get a case approved as "extraordinary and unusual," under what has become known as the "Makemson standard." Makemson v. Martin County, 491 So.2 1109 (Fla. 1986). )

3. It ended periodic billing. Under the old system, appointed attorneys could present invoices for payment by the government periodically (every six months) in those "extraordinary and unusual" cases, as the case went along (and sometimes, criminal cases can go on for years). The new system under 27.5304(3), Florida Statutes (2007), makes the appointed attorney wait until the end of the case before being paid anything - and before he can be sure that the case will indeed be approved as "extraordinary and unusual." Easy to see how an attorney might be wary at undertaking a complicated criminal defense matter when she could expect to invest time and money for years, only to end up being paid a low, flat rate and having to write off a significant amount of money from the books.

With this one alteration by the Florida Legislature (27.5304(3)), many excellent criminal defense attorneys were forced to take their names out of consideration for criminal appointments because they simply could not afford to essentially work for nothing on huge, time-consuming cases for months, and years, at a time. To do so would put them out of business.

As a result, judges had indigent criminal defendants in their courtrooms, and no criminal defense attorneys available to take the judicial appointment to represent the defendant. The defendant has a constitution right to counsel, and the judge had been placed in an untenable position by 27.5304(3), just as the criminal defense bar had been. What to do?

Next week, in part two of the series:
Involuntary appointments begin after criminal defense attorneys are forced to stop voluntarily taking on indigent defense cases, without consideration of the lawyer's budgetary needs (to pay salaries, expenses, etc.).

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