EDITORIALS: Preserving Independent Funding for Death Penalty Representation

A recent editorial in the Miami Herald applauded a court decision finding that the costs of represening defendants in Florida death penalty cases should be kept separate from the judges’ annual budget. A state judge held it would be unconstitutional to have judges making decisions about attorneys' fees when the money for such expenses comes from the judges' own resources. The editorial stated, "We depend on the court system to dispense justice—period. Not justice on a budget, not justice on the cheap, not justice with 'ka-ching' in the back of a judge’s mind." The costs formerly came out of general state revenue. Death penalty attorney David Markus said the law would have made “judges think twice about paying a lawyer, knowing that he or she has to also think about paying his secretary or buying copier paper.” The editorial called on lawmakers to heed the recommendations of the Florida Innocence Commission, which made several recommendations to correct the high rate of wrongful convictions in the state. The editors wrote, “Lawmakers truly interested in reform would take the recommendations seriously, even though they require more-adequate funding. Instead, the Legislature has steadily chipped away at courts’ budgets for the past six years, while the volume of cases has increased. That’s a stumbling block to real reform.” Florida leads the country in exonerations from death row, with 23 wrongful convictions overturned since 1973.  Read full editorial below.

True costs of justice

We depend on the court system to dispense justice — period. Not justice on a budget, not justice on the cheap, not justice with “ka-ching” in the back of a judge’s mind.

Nor should justice be denied because the funds simply aren’t there.

So applaud the decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Victoria Sigler to reject a state law that ties the legal bills for defending indigent clients facing the death penalty to state judges’ annual budgets. It’s a violation of the state Constitution, she ruled.

In March, state lawmakers sought to curtail the expenses of a pool of private attorneys appointed to represent death-penalty defendants too poor to pay for legal assistance.

The attorneys are paid a fixed — and low — rate, which will entice few truly seasoned lawyers. Senate Bill 1960 mandated that payment of any overruns, which used to come from state revenue, now would come from the courts’ budgets. That’s not an insignificant expense. Miami-Dade County, for instance, has paid more than $700,000 of its $1.2 million allotted by the state for such legal bills.

But the law also crosses the line that separates the judiciary and the state Legislature, which, according to Judge Sigler, is supposed to allocate all the funds for indigent clients. There should be no onus on a judge, charged with impartiality in interpreting and carrying out the laws of the state, to count pennies — not that any would. Still, as private attorney David S. Markus told The Miami Herald, the law “makes judges think twice about paying a lawyer, knowing that he or she has to also think about paying his secretary or buying copier paper.”

Mr. Markus, along with Terry Lenamon, represents Gregory Martin, who faces the death penalty if convicted of the 2000 killing of teenager Cynteria Phillips.

Defendants facing the death penalty are not the most sympathetic people in the world. But they have the right to make a case that they shouldn’t receive the state’s ultimate punishment.

Then, there’s this: The state of Florida has a sorry history of convicting defendants who are innocent of the crimes with which they have been charged. In fact, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida leads the nation in exonerations of wrongly convicted inmates from Death Row, with 23 freed since 1973.

Earlier this year, the Florida Innocence Commission delved into the troubling instances of false confessions, misidentification by eyewitnesses and lack of evidence preservation.

The Commission, created by the state Supreme Court in 2009, issued several recommendations to correct these problems. They include showing suspects’ photos to an eyewitness one at a time, instead of a “six-pack” lineup; requiring police to record all in-custody interrogations; and telling juries when a witness is a jailhouse informant who will be rewarded with a shorter sentence for testifying.

Lawmakers truly interested in reform would take the recommendations seriously, even though they require more-adequate funding.

Instead, the Legislature has steadily chipped away at courts’ budgets for the past six years, while the volume of cases has increased. That’s a stumbling block to real reform.

Gov. Rick Scott’s appeal-prone administration is likely to challenge Judge Sigler’s ruling. That would be unfortunate and costly — and it would do little to serve the cause of dispensing justice in the state.

("True costs of justice," Miami Herald, editorial, October 30, 2012).  See Representation and Innocence.  Read more Editorials on the death penalty.