Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Indigent Defendants and the Role of Their Public Defenders

On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that states are responsible for representing defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys.  Justice Hugo Black gave the Court’s opinion and stated, "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.  This seems to us to be an obvious truth."  This obligation imposed on states stems from the Sixth Amendment, which establishes a defendant’s right to counsel.  It also stems from the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees a defendant’s right to a fair legal process.  Today however, fifty years after Gideon was decided, the quality of legal representation afforded to indigent defendants is concerning in some states. 

Terrence Miller’s experience with a public defender illustrates the concerns in many systems.  Miller, who was indicted on drug charges in New Jersey, met his attorney for the first time just a few minutes before his trial began.  The attorney was assigned to Miller’s case only four days before the trial, and hardly prepared at all during that time.  He did not bother speaking to any witnesses or to any investigators who had worked on Miller’s case, and did not even speak with his client prior to trial to prepare him for the witness stand.  Unsurprisingly, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed Miller’s conviction after hearing his weak defense.

Sadly, Miller’s experience is one many indigent defendants face.  According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, a review of convictions overturned by DNA testing in Illinois revealed “a trail of. . . incompetent and overburdened defense attorneys, at the trial level and on appeal.”  The organization found that many public defenders were completely unprepared for trial, having failed to investigate basic aspects of their clients’ cases. 

One main reason for inadequate indigent representation is that public defenders are underpaid and overworked.  Sometimes, they are forced to choose efficiency over justice, due to massive caseloads.  Surely, this quality of representation was not what Justice Black was referring to in the Court’s Gideon opinion.  According to Justice Black, a defendant’s right to counsel is a procedural and substantive safeguard “. . . designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law.”  Clearly, Terrence Miller’s public defender did not serve as a safeguard for his client, and did not work to provide his client with a fair trial.  Based on his conduct and lack of preparation, he seemed totally indifferent to the outcome of Miller’s case and failed to demonstrate the role of counsel described by the Court in Gideon.

In order for indigent defendants to receive the fair trials they are entitled to, public defenders need to be held to a higher standard of competency by the courts.  For example, in Miller’s case, four out of the five New Jersey Supreme Court justices affirmed his conviction despite the poor representation he received.  The fact that these appellate judges saw the incompetency of the defendant’s attorney, yet affirmed his conviction is disheartening.  Essentially, the message these justices conveyed with their ruling is that a public defender is deemed “competent” even though he knows nothing about the facts of his client’s case. 

Instead of accepting incompetent representation, judges at both the trial and appellate levels need to acknowledge the incompetency of some public defenders and attempt to rectify such misconduct.  If public defenders are held to a higher standard of competency by the courts, then they will be forced to provide their clients with more effective representation.  However, if courts raise the competency standard for public defenders but their caseloads remain overly burdensome, then the quality of indigent representation will likely not improve.  According to a recent New York Times study, many public defenders have an annual caseload of over 1,600 cases.  This number greatly exceeds national standards, which limits felony cases to no more than 150 annually per attorney.  With such overwhelming caseloads, it is not surprising that many public defenders are unable to provide adequate representation to their clients.

Thus, a higher competency standard could only be realistically imposed on public defenders if their caseloads are lessened.  With fewer cases, defenders could dedicate more time and effort to each individual client, and could ultimately provide more competent representation.  Unfortunately, due to inadequate funding for many public defender offices, the problem of excessive caseloads continues to exist and to contribute to inadequate indigent representation.

Samantha Beyda
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Criminal law is important for the justice system. It is not only important for criminals to be properly prosecuted, but also that they can be deemed not-guilty in the event that there was a mistake in the persecution of a criminal. The person accused may not always be the criminal. Fortunately we have a just and fair law system that convicts the correct criminal most of the time... Well sometimes.

    Downing Centre