Monday 31 January 2011

A Challenge to Post-Conviction Indigent Defense in Mississippi

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Mississippi consistently has appointed unqualified, underfunded and overburdened attorneys to represent death row inmates in their appeals, a petition filed Monday with the state Supreme Court says.

The brief was filed on behalf of 15 death row inmates challenging the systemwide failure to provide them with competent counsel during their appeals after conviction.

The death row inmates are: Steve Knox, Michelle Byrom, Blayde Grayson, Benny Joe Stevens, Jan Michael Brawner, Rodney Gray, Jeffrey Harvard, Richard Jordan, Thong Le, Willie Manning, William Mitchell, Stephen Powers, Larry Matthew Puckett, Gary Carl Simmons and Alan Dale Walker.

"The remedies sought ... are to correct the harm they suffered as a result of the state's failure to do what it promised to do: provide them with competent and conscientious counsel before executing them," according to the 51-page document filed by Jackson attorney Jim Craig and attorneys from Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

An injunction is sought to ensure that all prisoners sentenced to die receive competent and conscientious counsel for future proceedings.

In May, a lawsuit was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court on behalf of 16 death row inmates, including Gerald James Holland, who was facing execution.

Chancery Court Judge William Singletary dismissed the suit, citing lack of jurisdiction, and Holland was executed days later.

Court papers filed with the state high court argue that the Chancery Court erred in its decision.
Glen Swartzfager, director of the Office of Capital Post Conviction Counsel, has acknowledged in court papers that some death row inmates appeals weren't adequately represented during previous administrations.

Swartzfager, who became director in 2008, was out of the office Monday and unavailable for comment.

The office was created in 2000. From the inception of the Office of Capital Post Conviction Counsel, the state set out to destroy the office's ability to provide competent and conscientious representation, the lawsuit says.

The appeal says the state:

# Failed to provide essential staff.

# Failed to provide critical funding.

# Appointed the office to represent more death-sentenced prisoners than it could competently and ethically represent at one time.

# Interfered with the performance of the duties of the director and the staff of the office.

# Failed to take corrective action once it became obvious that the office was failing to provide competent and conscientious counsel.
"15 Mississippi death row inmates challenge legal help's adequacy," is the AP report, via the Clarion-Ledger.
The original lawsuit included 16 inmates. One of the plaintiffs, Gerald James Holland, was executed May 20.

None of the remaining 15 inmates has had an execution date set through Monday.

The lawsuit claims the Mississippi Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel was inadequately staffed and funded and its attorneys were not versed in handling death row appeals.

The state office was created in 2000 to lift the burden off counties to pay for continuing death row appeals.

The attorney general's office will file a response to the appeal sometime later.

In the appeal, which gives only one side of the legal argument, Jackson attorney Jim Craig said the state has consistently appointed unqualified, underfunded and overburdened attorneys who cannot provide the "competent and conscientious" post-conviction counsel mandated by law.

The Office of Capital Post Conviction Counsel represents death row inmates in state post-conviction proceedings. In a post-conviction petitions, an inmate argues about new evidence – or a possible constitutional issue – that could persuade a court to order a new trial.

The inmates allege in the complaint that the Supreme Court itself has faulted MOCPCC counsel for filing petitions that are incomplete, contain misspellings and lack in key arguments and evidence.

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