Matthew Shirk was elected in 2008 to become the public defender in Jacksonville, Florida with the support of police and prosecutors and a promise that, if elected, he would not allow public defenders to accuse police officers of lying. Upon winning, he fired ten senior lawyers in the office, significantly diminishing its ability provide competent representation to poor people accused of crimes. He installed as his chief of homicide a lawyer who had 16 clients on death row and whom courts had found to have provided ineffective representation is several death penalty cases. After two terms, Shirk was defeated in the Republican Primary in 2016 by retired Judge Charlie Cofer, who had spent 18 years in the Public Defender’s Office and then 17 years as a county judge.
Shirk was elected after two veteran public defenders in Jacksonville successfully defended a black youth, Brenton Butler, who was accused of a murder. They won an acquittal, even though an eyewitness identified Butler as the perpetrator and law enforcement officers testified that Butler confessed. The public defenders presented Butler’s testimony that the Continue reading
The U. S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest regarding the right to counsel children accused of delinquent acts on March 13, 2015, in the case of N.P. v. Georgia, a case that challenges the representation of children and adults in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit (made up on Crisp, Ben Hill, Dooly and Wilcox counties south of Macon).
In the Statement, the Department asserts that children are denied their right to counsel not only when an attorney is entirely absent, but also when an attorney is available in name only. As the Department summarized, “due process requires that every child who faces the loss of liberty should be represented from their first appearance through, at least, the disposition of their case by an attorney with the training, resources and time to effectively advocate the child’s interest.”
It is the first filing by the Department of Justice in a state court action to address the due process right to counsel for children established by the U.S. Supreme Court in In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). The way children are treated in the juvenile courts in the Cordele Circuit bears no resemblance to what the Department says is legally required. There, children accused of delinquent acts are neglected and often receive only token representation or no representation at all.
A version of Stephen B. Bright’s course “Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage” is now available online at no cost on a Yale site, YouTube and iTunesU. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, has taught courses on capital punishment at Yale and other law schools since 1993, and has been representing people facing the death penalty since 1979. The course examines issues of race and poverty in the criminal justice system, particularly with regard to the imposition of the death penalty, and the imposition of the death penalty on the intellectually disabled and mentally ill.
Utilizing court decisions, transcripts, articles, interviews with people involved in the cases, and other materials, the course examines the legal and practical aspects of capital punishment, including the right to counsel for people who cannot afford lawyers; racial discrimination in decisions made by prosecutors, judges and jurors; judicial independence; jury selection; competency for trial and other issues involving mental health and intellectual functioning; and the evidence to be considered and the procedures employed in capital cases. The course is divided into 13 sessions. Each session features a series of videos and accompanying readings, plus supplementary links.
Recent developments in a lawsuit over the right to counsel for poor children and adults accused of crimes in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit has revealed the importance of representation by a lawyer for some of the public officials sued in the case. However, they have been concerned about their own representation in the case, while showing no concern for the lack of representation or token representation received for years by poor children and adults accused of crimes.
The circuit’s three public defenders handle an annual caseload of approximately 1700 children and adults accused of crimes – 567 cases for each attorney, far more than any attorney can competently and ethically handle. As a result, people arrested in the Circuit Continue reading
Robert Holsey was executed by Georgia on December 9, 2014, even though he was represented at his capital trial by a lawyer who drank a quart of vodka every night of trial while preparing to be sued, criminally prosecuted, and disbarred for stealing client funds. He failed to present evidence that his intellectually disabled client was, as summarized by dissenting Judge Rosemary Barkett, “subjected to abuse so severe, so frequent, and so notorious that his neighbors called his childhood home ‘the Torture Chamber.’” The jury heard only that a report listed Holsey as “borderline mentally retarded,” but the lawyer did not present any testimony to explain what that meant and the extent and consequences of Holsey’s intellectual disability. An excellent account of the case is provided by Marc Bookman in This Man’s Alcoholic Lawyer Botched His Case. Georgia Executed Him Last Night Anyway published in Mother Jones.
A Georgia trial judge, after hearing testimony presented at a post-trial hearing about the lawyer and the evidence that was not presented at trial, ruled that “no one can seriously believe that [Holsey] received the constitutional guarantees of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel” and granted Holsey a new sentencing hearing. Continue reading