Nov. 6, 2017 — A capital punishment scholar blames inattentive defense attorneys and hard-charging prosecutors for widespread inequities in the criminal justice system, especially capital cases.
Stephen B. Bright, a professor of practice at the Georgia State College of Law who also teaches at Georgetown and Yale law schools, was the keynote speaker recently at the Houston Law Review's 22nd annual Frankel Lecture.
During his lecture titled: "The Right to Counsel in Texas Capital Punishment Cases and Related Issues," Bright referenced Texas, and Harris County in particular, as the national leaders in executions.
He said the legal profession cannot tolerate incompetence in criminal cases, especially in cases where execution is a potential outcome.
"A very large number of criminal cases have all the integrity of a professional wrestling match," Bright said. "That's because they're already rigged from the start because the person accused was not adequately represented or was not represented at all by the lawyer assigned to defend that person.
"Progress has been made, but a lot more progress has to be made. For those of you in law school and are going to be lawyers, you are going to have a monopoly on legal services and you have a moral responsibility to make this system work."
Commentators were Jordan M. Steiker, a law professor and director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law, and Lise Olsen, a deputy investigations editor and senior investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle.
"It only takes one judge to be friends with one bad lawyer for that lawyer to continue to get appointments," Olsen said. She then raised the question: What can members of the bar do to defend the system from lawyers who have litigated capital punishment cases unethically?
Steiker said while the Sixth Amendment ensures a right to counsel, it doesn't always mean attorneys work in the best interest of their client.
"It's an unfortunate part of our Sixth Amendment law that in order to get relief based on poor lawyering, you have to show not only that the lawyer fell far below professional norms, you also have to show that there's a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different had the defendant been well represented.
"The problem with that is you didn't have an effective lawyer to muster all the efforts that might have changed the outcome and it's very hard to Monday morning quarterback after the fact that things might have been different."