Justice for all? Lawyers differ on system's fairness

Conference focuses on whether poor are represented fairly

Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000

After attending a U.S. Department of Justice conference on indigent defendants last month in Washington, D.C., two local attorneys came away with differing views of Juneau's needy criminals.

Former public defender Daniel Wayne and District Attorney Richard Svobodny went to the conference with Juneau District Court Judge Peter Froehlich.

A Department of Justice report, Contracting for Indigent Defense Services, says 60 percent to 90 percent of all criminal cases involve indigent defendants. Wayne estimates 85 percent of Juneau defendants are indigent.

Indigent defendants do not get an adequate defense because they cannot afford the advanced technology available to prosecutors, nor can they afford to hire expert witnesses and investigators, said Wayne, who has represented poor people charged with crimes. Often they are assigned public defenders, contracted on low bids.

``At $40 an hour, you're going to get somebody either right out of law school or incompetent,'' Wayne said, citing a recent case of a low-bid Texas defense attorney who fell asleep during trial.

``It has been proven that public defenders can do a good job when adequate funding for support staff and case-related expenses is available, but when case loads go up and money doesn't go up, it becomes difficult for any public defender to keep pace,'' Wayne said.

Wayne said U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a conference speaker, acknowledged that poor defendants often do not get the legal help they need.

``As a prosecuting attorney for many years, she said she would prefer to have a well-trained, not overworked, adequately prepared defense lawyer on the other side in any case,'' Wayne said.

District Attorney Svobodny, however, said poor people are getting justice in Southeast Alaska.

``When I (went to D.C.), my impression was that Alaska had the Cadillac of public defender services for indigent defendants,'' Svobodny said. ``I have changed my mind; we have the Rolls Royce.''

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 25 years ago that indigent defendants have a right to a lawyer at public expense, but never came up with a mechanism to establish that right. So states have taken a variety of approaches, and some such as Virginia seem not to be doing a good job, he said.

That is hardly the case in Juneau, Svobodny said.

``The city and borough have a contract of over $100,000 to provide public defender services. There is not a place in Southeast Alaska where the public defenders' office doesn't have more attorneys than the state has prosecutors. We have a good system,'' he said.

He estimates only 50 percent of ``people who show up at their arraignments'' in Juneau are indigent.

``It's certainly easier for people with money to pay for an alcohol program as opposed to someone who would need to do community service to pay for it, or pay for it on a sliding scale,'' he said.

As an example of a case where substantial resources went into the defense, he named Joel Taplin, accused of killing a man with his car, where expert witnesses and other defense costs defense ``ran between one-quarter million and one-half a million dollars. What middle-income person could afford that?'' he asked.

``I am sure more defendants would like investigators and social workers and economists and people who analyze selection of juries, but 99 percent of the time they don't need that'' to get a fair shake in court, he said.

Judge Froehlich, who also attended the conference, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

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