Tuesday, January 01, 2008

29-Year Old P.D. Builds Supreme Court Case Against Death Penalty

Lucky for me this article came out after the Simple Justice award...

One of the biggest capital punishment cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court in a generation was put together largely by a young, fresh-out-of-law-school member of Kentucky's overworked and underpaid corps of public defenders.

David Barron, 29, filed an appeal on behalf of two Kentucky death row inmates, arguing that the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections across the country can cause excruciating pain, and thus amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

After three years of long hours on Barron's part, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 7...

Legal experts said the Kentucky case apparently got the attention of the high court because it arrived fully developed -- it went through a full-blown trial with more than 20 witnesses, who argued both sides of the question of whether inmates suffer extreme pain while immobilized, unable to cry out.

David, whom the article describes as a "hardcore Boston Red Sox fan" who "draws professional hope from the way the Red Sox finally won the World Series after 86 years of futility" says:

"There's something to be said about representing the people who society casts aside," Barron said. "They are the ones often left to fend for themselves."

While that attitude is exactly what I admiringly described earlier today in this post, let's face it: The Boston Red Sox didn't win the world series two out of four years by paying their players what "most Kentucky's public defenders" receive as starting pay in Kentucky, $38,000 a year.

In fact, the Red Sox paid their players the second highest amount last year in Major League Baseball, $143,123,714, second only to the New York Yankees $195,229,045.

In contrast, "Kentucky spends about $33.5 million in 2005 (the last year for which numbers were available) on a population of 4.1 million. That's about $8.14 per person for public defense -- 23rd among the 30 state-run public defender offices nationally. Oregon leads the nation at $23.75 spent per person."

When I read the article about Kentucky Public Defenders, I thought of how impressed I was with the people I met at NCDC in 2003 who came as both teachers and students from Kentucky's statewide p.d.'s office. And then, I read a quote from an NCDC instructor I remember well:

"It's an uphill battle," said Ernie Lewis, head of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. "We can't provide an O.J. defense."

Maybe not. But O.J. had the assistance of a few former p.d.'s, such as Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, on his "dream team." Sadly, however, what the article says about the perceptions of public defenders in the legal community at large is probably true, at least of most lawyers:

"Public defenders work one of the lowest rungs of the legal profession, one that is often not very highly regarded by other lawyers. Many young lawyers right out of law school often get their start as public defenders, and often race from case to case with barely enough time to read the file, much less do the in-depth investigation attorneys in private practice can do."

I'm not sure I agree with the assertion that P.D.'s have "barely enough time to read the file" as the good ones refuse to go in unprepared, and even go to jail rather than try a case on one days notice. Personally though, I was frustrated by the demands on my time when I was a p.d., as I seemed to go from one catastrophe to the next, like an "emergency room lawyer." Now I have the luxury of more time to investigate and prepare, but I'm also thankful for the time I spent as a p.d. It was great training but, at least for me, the time had come to try to pay down those student loans before my own kids needed to start taking them out.

Perhaps if we committed to paying off the student loans of state public defenders who stay in the job after getting the training, or at least allowed them to do some private work on the side, we wouldn't lose so many to the private sector so quickly.

It's great that David prepared and brought this case, which will be argued in less than a week. It's even better that he "was paired with... a fellow public defender with at least a decade of experience" as it takes both commitment and experience to adequately represent what Clarence Mock calls "the citizen accused."

1 comment:

death row lawyer said...

Your comments are very beneficial and insightful.

The news article, however, has many inaccurate and misleadng statements.

Before moving to KY, Mr. Barron spent a year representing death row inmates, and raised lethal injection challenges in two cases. He has been practicing law 4 1/2 years now, so he is not fresh out of law school, and he only represents death-sentenced inmates in post conviction proceedings. He came to KY to continue representing death-sentences individuals and works in the capital post conviction unit. He is also admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.

The purpose of the litigation is to prevent the inmates from feeling significant and unnecessary pain.

The attorney references in the article as working with Barron and that you note as being paired with, actually did not get on the case until the case was fully briefed on appeal in the Kentucky Supreme Court. The attorneys that were previously on the case had left the unit, and two attorneys are on nearly all death penalty cases.