December 09, 2006

Mary Poppins Does Death Row

I recently had the pleasure of a brief debate with a woman (who I will now call ”Mary Poppins”) in the My Space U.S. Politics Forum. After reading my earlier blog, ”Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied” as well as my posted commentary of how the Florida Supreme Court summarily denied my petition arguing a constitutional right to expedited review of my actual innocence claims (See, Florida Supreme Court Says, “No Right To Expedited Review of Actual Innocence Claim,”) and how I am now forced to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court without the benefit of legal representation.

This individual responded by saying, “I smell fish” – that if my case was that strong I should have no problem finding pro bono legal counsel (a lawyer willing to take my case at no charge) and since no lawyers are beating down the prison gates to represent me my claims can’t possibly be credible.

Of coarse in all her infinite wisdom my new friend Mary Poppins still could not and did not provide the name of even one qualified lawyer who might be interested in taking on a capital case. Apparently she is so disillusioned that she actually thinks that lawyers do take on capital cases “pro bono” all the time. It must be nice to still be able to live in a fairytale world of sugar and spice and everything nice.

But I don’t blame her at all… her ignorance is only too common. People out there just don’t have a clue and they really do think that everyone on death row has quality legal representation and that there are swarms of lawyers out there lining up at the prison gates wanting to take on death row cases.

The reality of it is that there are very few lawyers willing to take on capital post conviction cases -- much less lawyers who are actually qualified to take on a capital case. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, capital (death sentenced) post conviction appellate proceedings have evolved into one of the most inherently complex areas of law. Very few lawyers have the experience, training, and competency to handle representing capital cases.

Look at it like this – the practice of law is a lot like the practice of medicine. Both have specialized fields of practice that require specialized training and experience. Capital post conviction litigation today is like the brain surgery of law. Very few lawyers are trained in this area as it is incredibly demanding and pays very little. Over the years of attempts to expedite executions politicians have passed all sorts of procedural rules lawyers must navigate and if even one procedural rule is not strictly adhered to then the entire appeal is thrown out.

In a perfect world there would be lawyers willing to step up and volunteer to represent death sentenced prisoners “pro bono,” especially in cases where a substantiated claim of actual innocence is made. But wake up Mary Poppins, we don’t live in a perfect world.

Since I was sentenced to death in 1984 about 20 men and women have been released from Florida’s death row after being found to have been wrongfully convicted and innocent of their alleged crime. I personally knew most of these people and I don’t know of even one of these cases in which a lawyer stepped up to volunteer “pro bono" to represent them -- not even one.

So, the next time someone wants to question the validity of my actual innocence claims by arguing that if I had a legitimate claim of innocence then I’d have lawyers lining up around the block wanting to take my case, I would appreciate it very much if you would provide a list of lawyers you think are so willing to step up to the plate as I would really like to know who they are.

Until then I’m stuck with the reality that these lawyers simply do not exist. For that reason I must represent myself in this soon to be filed petition in the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that they will at least read it. If the U.S. Supreme Court does actually accept review of the question of law I am presenting (whether there is a constitutional right to timely review of an actual innocence in the state courts), then I will be able to request the appointment of legal counsel. But for now I am forced to represent myself in this matter as no qualified lawyers are willing to step up to the plate. Of coarse, if Mary Poppins really wanted to help she’d just loan me her umbrella and I’d simply fly away or at least share whatever it is she’s so obviously on.