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Two Perspectives on Court-Appointed Lawyers

When it comes to guaranteeing the protections of the Constitution for citizens accused of crime, Virginia is almost criminal in its lack of attention to the issue ("Cheap Justice," Cover Story, Jan. 10).

More money is needed; however, citizens should never assume that merely because they have court-appointed counsel that the level of representation will suffer because of the money. I personally know several attorneys who, if paid $25,000 or more for a case, are in my estimation totally worthless. I have been to jail six times for contempt in cases where I thought a client's rights were violated. Five were in court-appointed misdemeanor cases. It is not the fee which triggers the professionalism of attorneys.

Without any reservation I will state that there are several public defenders, both past and present, who I would consider as some of the best criminal trial lawyers in the city. Some public defenders and court-appointed attorneys are not that good; some are actually bad. The same could be said for retained attorneys, but it is their character and dedication to the law that brings about the difference.

Your article was all the more amazing when I noticed the names of the attorneys interviewed: David Hicks and Tony Spencer. When I think of knowledgeable attorneys in the area of criminal law, the names of Carolyn Grady, Craig Cooley, Chris Collins and those who I read about in the papers, many of whom I know personally and whose performances I see in court, come to mind.

We forget that the life of Ray Dandridge was saved from lethal injection by Claire Cardwell, Cary Bowen and David Lassiter, all court-appointed attorneys — smart, innovative and thorough. Where were the interviews with them? The life of John Lee Malvo, one of the Washington, D.C., snipers, was spared through the efforts of his court-appointed lawyers.

Good and honest lawyers want to help their clients, regardless of fee, and bad lawyers do not care, regardless of fee. I have no idea about a lawyer who would rather work at Burger King.

The commonwealth has no right to expect the character of private attorneys to fulfill or enable its obligation to provide constitutional protections to anyone charged under our laws, but for years it has. The system is flawed. We are all fortunate that the sanctity of the oaths taken by attorneys continue to supply some reality to the promises of the Constitution.

To deny or ignore the obligation of this society to provide effective assistance of counsel for all accused is akin to denying the right to vote or the right to free speech. It is un-American and it is an affront to all true lovers of this nation and its ideals.

Fund indigent defense. See that the innocent are set free and that the guilty are convicted and sentenced for what they did and not because they are poor or despised. Recognize the importance of what public defenders and court-appointed attorneys provide. That is what being an American is about, not wearing a flag in your lapel or some ribbon on the trunk of your car.

David P. Baugh

After reading the article about supposedly underfunded court-appointed defense lawyers, I wondered if we need to begin issuing food stamps and welfare checks to these down-on-their-luck lawyers. Really, are we to take seriously the proposition that lawyers are lining up to do court-appointed work solely out of their compassion for the downtrodden? I think the author of the article watched "To Kill a Mockingbird" a few too many times.

The reality is that the vast majority of criminal cases are uncontested because the defendant's guilt is overwhelmingly established by the evidence. In this vast majority of cases, the prosecutor lets the defense attorney know what evidence he or she has, and after a short conversation with the client, a decision is reached to plead guilty or perhaps the attorney will try to convince the prosecutor to let the defendant plead guilty to a lesser charge. This entire process of information-gathering and plea negotiation can, and often does, take place in a few minutes before court commences. Total defense attorney time spent on this process? Maybe 20 minutes. Throw in an initial meeting with the client, and maybe the lawyer spends 45 minutes or an hour from start to finish.

In addition, most court-appointed lawyers have other areas of practice, and court-appointed criminal work is just supplemental income. There are some lawyers who do a lot of court-appointed work, and while they have to hustle to make it work, you won't find any over at the Daily Planet. Why? Basic economics: The few cases that require more time than the fee-cap pays for are compensated for by the far greater number of cases where the time spent is adequately compensated. This is why, incidentally, there is often substantial resistance by private defense lawyers to the introduction of a public defender in a jurisdiction: It's money out of their pockets.

Ironically, in the crap-shoot world of criminal defense, a nonindigent defendant can spend a lot of money on a lawyer whose reputation exceeds his abilities; a poor defendant can end up with a court-appointed lawyer who will do a far better job than many retained lawyers would. For every horror story of a court-appointed lawyer giving short shrift to a client, there are two about a highly paid retained lawyer doing a poor job. The issue is not so much the money, it's the quality of lawyers. Many fine defense lawyers do court-appointed work and represent their clients zealously.

Why should it concern Style Weekly that they make it work by doing a volume business?

Tom McKenna

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