Louisiana defendant selected for death because of public defender’s budget constraints

For the second time this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review the continued indifference to funding for the right to counsel in capital cases – and the State of Louisiana’s concomitant desire to have the death penalty but not pay for it.  In Boyer v. Louisiana, the Court, after first granting review of the case, ultimately refused to address the question of whether failure to fully fund counsel, investigators and experts in a capital case for years violated the defendant’s constitutional rights to counsel and a speedy trial.  In Garcia v. Louisiana, the Court was presented with a similar occasion, where the defendant was unquestionably prejudiced by the lack of funding.  Essentially, three men were charged with capital murder in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana.   The facts of Garcia v. Louisiana are described here:

The public defender office could not represent all of them or afford to adequately provide separate capital representation to each of them.  Even the prosecutor informed the trial court at Mr. Garcia’s very first hearing that the multiple representation might pose a conflict of interest, but the judge left the Public Defender to work it out.

The Public Defender assigned all the capitally-certified attorneys from his office, including himself, to represent Mr. Garcia, and assigned lawyers who were not certified to represent defendants facing the death penalty to represent the two co-defendants. This refusal to hire outside counsel saved the public defender office from going bankrupt.  It also prevented the state from seeking death against the two other defendants.  But it meant that Garcia’s lawyer chose him as the only defendant against whom the State could seek the death penalty.

The Garcia case reflects the perspectives of the justices who concurred in and dissented from the dismissal in Boyer.  Justice Alito’s concurrence observed that the inadequate resources devoted to indigent defense in Louisiana have the capacity to provide strategic benefit for defendants facing the death penalty: “It is also quite clear that the delay caused by the defense likely worked in petitioner’s favor.” In contrast, Justice Sotomayor’s dissent makes clear that these delays in Boyer arose out of “larger, systemic problems in Louisiana.” Mr. Garcia’s case demonstrates the accuracy of the latter position and the problem with the former.  Whatever benefit his co-defendants received as a result of the funding crisis, the cost was borne by Mr. Garcia.  Instead of being used to justify delay, the public defender’s undisputed budgetary constraints put Garcia’s counsel in the position to spare two clients from the death penalty in a manner that left Mr. Garcia more likely to receive it.

If a private lawyer retained to represent all three defendants, had chosen two clients to be exempted from capital (or other serious) punishment, there would be no question that the third defendant could properly claim that the conflict of interest infiltrated the proceedings.  But conflict free counsel, much like the right to a speedy trial, is reserved for first class justice.  Allowing it to continue unchecked, the United States Supreme Court again declined to address this two-tiered standard of justice.

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