No defense for indigent cases

No defense for indigent cases
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

What would it be worth to you to have a good lawyer if you were charged with a heinous crime and were facing the death penalty? Would any amount be too much? Probably not.

But few of us can afford a money-is-no-object defense. As taxpayers, there's a limit, too, in what we can afford to spend collectively for court-appointed lawyers who represent poor people in criminal cases.

Even so, what's happening in Alabama is ridiculous.

Lawyers who represent poor defendants are paid the lowly sum of $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $60 an hour for in-court work. That's a fraction of what lawyers earn when defendants hire them. But until recently, the court-appointed lawyers were at least able to supplement the indigent rates by getting payments (on average, $29 an hour) to cover overhead expenses such as rent, insurance and office staff.

The overhead pay ended in February when Attorney General Troy King issued an opinion saying state law banned the practice.

Criminal defense lawyers warned that cut in pay would dry up the pool of those willing to take court-appointed cases, particularly complicated ones like those involving the death penalty. The warnings have been, unfortunately, borne out.

Lawyers across the state have withdrawn from capital cases. Among them was William Pfeifer, who had represented one of the defendants in a robbery-murder case in Mobile that captured more attention than most; the victim was allegedly killed for being a homosexual.

"Counsel is not financially able to subsidize the state of Alabama in its efforts to execute persons charged with capital offenses, nor as a matter of conscience is he willing to do so," Pfeifer wrote in his motion withdrawing from the case.

Concerned, the Senate passed a measure this summer to restore the overhead pay. But the legislation didn't have enough support in the House of Representatives to come up for a vote, thanks, in part, to opposition from the Christian Coalition of Alabama. "In our view, it was not good stewardship at the time," said the coalition's president, John Giles.

And here we thought the Christian Coalition was against gambling. While the group opposes gambling with money, it apparently doesn't mind gambling with the lives of poor defendants - at least not enough to let the state spend as much as $28 million over two years to pay indigent lawyers a decent wage.

People in Alabama ought to be outraged. If they can't work up a tear for the defense lawyers or the poor defendants, Alabamians should at least be concerned for themselves and for victims' families. Paying for a second-rate defense may seem like a good idea, but it ends up costing more over the long haul, with retrials that drain more resources and place an undue strain on the families of victims and defendants alike. In addition, a shortage of lawyers in these cases will only make the wheels of justice grind more slowly.

It's not only wrong for Alabama to shortchange indigent defendants; it's dumb. The overhead pay needs to be restored.
The sooner, the better.