Sunday, November 15, 2009

If You Hire an Attorney, You Won't be Sentenced to Death

If you hire a lawyer, the chances are you won't be sentenced to death in Houston.
University of Denver Criminologist Scott Phillips reviewed 504 capital indictments over three decades in Harris County, Texas, and found that defendants who hired lawyers for the entire trial were never sentenced to death -- and were more likely to be acquitted.

The results of his study, published over the summer in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, are truly stunning. Since nearly all defendants facing the death penalty in Harris County were poor, Phillips argues that his results further demonstrate the arbitrariness of capital punishment. If a defendant's family and community is able to pool resources to hire an attorney, the paid attorney might be better equipped to investigate a case or to bring bargaining power to the table against a district attorney.

He makes clear that his findings aren't an indictment of appointed attorneys, but of the system that straddles those attorneys with thin resources in a death penalty case. Something clearly went wrong for results this drastic.

Phillips also came up with some significant findings on race and capital punishment, which he published in the American Constitution Society's journal, Advance.

Phillips found that the race of a defendant played a significant role in whether he or she was charged with death. This is no surprise to people following capital punishment issues, of course, but Phillips makes some interesting recommendations for prosecutors' offices to avoid this disparity. He praises the Harris DA's office for eliminating the race of a defendant from the memo used to determine whether to seek the death penalty. Other markers, however, still indicate race and play a role in the decision, he says.

Phillips suggests that prosecutors' offices go further than just removing race -- they need to "be vigilant" and remove victim information, neighborhoods, school names and other possible identifiers. This is a commendable -- but unrealistic -- idea.

Phillips' research is important, but I believe it further proves that the death penalty is cruel and unusual. I don't think it's possible to remove the arbitrariness of race, socioeconomic background or myriad other factors that lead the most vulnerable to our death row. Abolishing capital punishment is the only way to address the inherent injustice in the system.

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