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Where Are the Pro Bono Attorneys When You Need Them?

Talk about a deprivation of Sixth Amendment rights or ineffective assistance of counsel just waiting to happen. This article by New Orleans criminal defense attorney Dwight Doskey,  Trapped in the Courtroom:  As Indigent Lawyers Disappear, One Is Left (Sept. 22, 2006), describes how he has been left as the sole attorney to represent 20 defendants in capital cases in New Orleans:

This summer, changes at the public defender's office resulted in the resignation of a number of attorneys, including two of the three remaining attorneys who handled death penalty cases. Five lawyers had been handling 27 capital cases pre-Katrina, far more than allowed under any nationally approved scheme; that insufferablecaseload then devolved upon the remaining three.

Of the three remaining attorneys, one resigned because, like all the attorneys, he had been asked to devote himself to the job full-time, and he felt that he wouldn't be able to get along without the income from his private practice. Another was reassigned to non-death-penalty cases.

That left me.

I resigned as well, but money was not my reason. Though offered a salary greater than I ordinarily derive from both my public defender work and my private practice combined, I chose to quit effective Sept. 15 rather than continue to work under impossible conditions. The public defender's office was given almost two months' notice that I would not be able to try any more capital cases.

If I thought I was going to be able to walk away from those cases, I was wrong. Because the public defender's office took no steps to replace the departing attorneys, all but one of the judges ordered me to remain on the public defender's cases last week. The other attorney who quit may soon find himself in the same situation.

At the end of last week, I was the attorney on approximately 20 capital cases. It is unclear whether I will be paid at all, even though by Supreme Court standards this could be full-time employment for the next five years.

Last year, lawyers came to the rescue to help out their colleagues in the aftermath of Katrina. Let's not forget that some, like Doskey and his clients, still need assistance. This sounds like a neat pro bono projects for law firms, with potential for a jury trial and perhaps, down the line, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (which plenty of law firms are avid to obtain). Any takers?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on September 26, 2006 at 07:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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