STUDIES: Disparities in Legal Representation in Harris County, Texas

Scott Phillips, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver, recently published a study that revealed disparities in who receives the death penalty inTexas. Phillips studied the 504 death penalty cases that occurred between 1992 and 1999 in Harris County (Houston and surrounding areas). Harris County is the largest jurisdiction in the United States to use a court-appointment system for selecting lawyers to defend indigent defendants. Phillips’s research showed stark differences between the defendants who were represented by hired counsel and those who were not, regardless of their socio-economic status.  His study revealed that “those who can hire counsel for the entire case, or even a portion of the case, appear to be treated in a fundamentally different manner than those who cannot.” For the 504 death penalty cases examined, hiring counsel for the entire case eliminated the chance of a death sentence and resulted in more acquittals, and hiring counsel for at least a portion of the case substantially reduced the chance of a death sentence.

Based on his research, Phillips recommended that Harris County move from a court-appointed system to a public defender system. Public defenders, he argued, have superior performance in death penalty cases, pointing to the examples of the capital defender programs in Colorado, New York, and Philadelphia. “A public defender office would be staffed by salaried government attorneys who are autonomous,“ he said.

“This is not an indictment of appointed attorneys,” according to Phillips. “The system is flawed, and because 252 of 254 counties in Texas use the appointment system, the research is relevant statewide.” This research could be relevant to more than just the state of Texas. Accounting for 106 executions since the modern era, Phillips dubbed Harris County the “capital of capital punishment.“ “Findings of the current research have important implications for the national death penalty debate … Understanding capital punishment in Texas is a prerequisite for understanding capital punishment in America.”

(S. Phillips, "Legal Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment," 99 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 717 (2009)).  See Arbitrariness and Representation.