A lawyer is facing professional sanctions after his services to a client accused of murder who was facing the death sentence were so inadequate the defendant was entitled to a new trial. The lawyer had represented only three prior murder defendants and had never tried a capital punishment case in the past at the time he accepted this case.
It is typically very hard to prove that a defendant’s lawyer was so incompetent as to have violated the constitutional right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment. To speak in generalizations, to violate the right to the assistance of counsel for a defendant who did have an attorney requires that they were worse-off than they would have been absent any attorney. To meet this burden is very difficult, marked by one notable case in which a defendant’s lawyer appeared to be sleeping through most of the trial but was not found to be constitutionally inadequate.
In this case, however, the state supreme court found that in the capital punishment case the attorney’s assistance was so grossly inadequate that the defendant deserved a retrial. There were a variety of issues with the lawyer’s defense, including referring to the defendant as a “professional drug dealer”, a “shooter of people” and referring to his past conviction for voluntary manslaughter. At one point he also told the jury that whoever committed the crime in question deserved to die.
These examples make it clear that the defendant was actually hurt by the lawyer’s “assistance” and that he may have been better off representing himself in this case.
This case shows the importance of working with reputable, experienced attorneys who are familiar with the issues and understand the trial process.
Source: ABA Journal, “Lawyer’s deficient capital murder defense requires sanction, ethics board says,” Debra Cassens Weiss, April 10, 2014.