Money Talks in Death Penalty Defense

Money talks in death penalty defense. Check out the record of the well-funded Philadelphia defender's office: In eleven years, not one client has been sentenced to death.

Lawyers say the Defender Association of Philadelphia's track record — in a city that annually ranks near the top in use of the death penalty — is proof that when it comes to capital punishment, the difference between life and death for a convicted killer can be a matter of dollars and cents. With 215 attorneys on staff, the Defenders Association is equipped with resources usually available only to prosecutors. Every capital murder client gets two lawyers and a private investigator. A team of psychologists and ``mitigation experts'' hunt for evidence that might sway jurors against a death sentence.

By comparison, the court-appointed private lawyers who still handle four out of every five murder cases in Philadelphia sometimes get as little as $2,000 to defray expenses, plus $400 in fees for each day of trial. All 61 people condemned to death in Philadelphia since the Defenders Association began handling capital cases in 1993 were represented by private attorneys.

Opponents of capital punishment have argued for years that defendants facing a potential death sentence often don't get the help they need from overworked, poorly equipped lawyers. A 2000 study by researchers at Columbia University found that 68 percent of all death sentences imposed between 1973 and 1995 were later overturned. Legal experts said a leading reason for reversals, then and now, are rulings that a defendant's lawyer was ineffective during some phase of the trial.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees effective assistance of counsel. This means providing training, resources and experts, which cost money. Nowhere is the need greater than in a death case.

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