The Philadelphia Inquirer recently conducted a review of death penalty appeals in Pennsylvania spanning three decades and found a pattern of ineffective assistance by defense attorneys. More than 125 capital murder trials in the Pennsylvania, including 69 in Philadelphia, have been reversed or sent back by state and federal courts after finding that mistakes by the defense attorney deprived the defendant of a fair trial. These do not include cases in which courts found that lawyers made obvious mistakes but ruled that the mistakes did not affect the outcome of the case. The Inquirer found that lawyers defending those facing the death penalty often spent little time preparing their cases, sometimes neglecting basic steps such as interviewing defendants, finding witnesses, and investigating a defendant’s background. For example, in a closing argument, Wilson Cooper’s lawyer quoted a Biblical passage that called for the death penalty only in the killing of a pregnant woman, forgetting that Cooper had killed a pregnant woman. Legal experts agreed that there are systemic problems in the state’s indigent defense program, exemplified by underpaid and overworked lawyers who take on death penalty cases. In Philadelphia, court-appointed lawyers receive $2000 for trial preparation in a capital case and $400 per day in court. Critics say the fees, which are the lowest in the state, deter good lawyers from working on death penalty cases and inevitably lead to reversals. Ronald D. Castille, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, recently cited “intolerable” errors by defense lawyers, compounded by some “idiotic” appellate briefs. The justice, who recently ordered a review of attorney pay rates, said that such practices all but guarantee delays and new court hearings that prolong cases for years.

Ronald L. Greenblatt, chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, “The number of reversals on these cases is staggering. The attorneys who are doing this work, because of the low pay, are not doing it the right way. We really need it to stop.”

(N. Phillips, “In life and death cases, costly mistakes,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 23, 2011; DPIC will look at further findings from this article in a subsequent post). See Representation and Studies.