Client of "Sleeping Lawyer" Gets Another Raw Deal

Calvin Burdine is the inmate on Death Row in Texas who had his state conviction reversed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals because his lawyer slept through the trial.

Then, the lawyer who had worked for fifteen years to reverse his conviction was disqualified from re-trying the case because Harris County, Texas hasn't certified him as a capital defense lawyer.

So a new lawyer was appointed. Now the trial judge is trying to force the new lawyer to be ready for trial in this 20 year old capital case 96 days after she was appointed.

The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association says the time constraint is unheard of and impossible to meet. No one could be ready to try the case in that short of period of time.

"In an open letter of protest to local judges circulated Wednesday, the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association said that no attorney can provide a satisfactory defense in a capital murder case with just 96 days of preparation."

" 'This is especially true where the case is almost 20 years old, where there are voluminous records and materials to digest and research, and where the attorney who represented Mr. Burdine for the last 15 years has not been permitted to remain as (his) court-appointed counsel,' the letter states."

"Signed by more than 40 local defense lawyers, the letter asserts that Burdine's case would be the quickest capital case to go to trial in Harris County history."

As one local lawyer said, "It's very ironic that the case that got the Harris County capital murder system its worst publicity and most embarrassment is now on this fast track to the same sort of justice. It should be just the opposite."

The ACLU has filed suit against the Judge, both for not allowing Burdine his choice of counsel and for rushing the trial date.

The chief administrative judge for Harris County has said "nobody has proved to him that a proper defense cannot be prepared in three months, even though he does not remember hearing of a capital case going to trial in such a short span."

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 281 inmates, more than triple the number of Virginia, which ranks second. In 2002, Texas has accounted for half of all the executions in the country.

Harris County is a pipeline to death row. If it were a state, it would rank third in the country for the number of executions, behind only Texas and Virginia. Harris County has more people on death row than 31 of the 38 states that have the death penalty.

As the Houston Chronicle reported in a special series of articles on the death penalty last year, "In Harris County, the difference between life and death often has little to do with the moral weight of the crime. It has everything to do with how easy a death sentence is to secure."

Calvin Burdine deserves a fair trial. He's waited 20 years for one. The Judge can wait a little longer than 96 days to ensure he gets one. The State of Texas owes him that. Burdine is getting a raw deal and Harris County is going to get another black eye.

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