A call to fix our utterly broken indigent defense system

02 Feb, 24

Dear Friends, 

One defendant’s medical record revealed evidence of brain damage. Another defendant had an intellectual disability with an IQ score of 66. Others were victims of physical or sexual abuse, or both.

But jurors didn’t have any of this information when they deliberated on whether those individuals should receive a death sentence. And those are just a few examples out of 28 death penalty cases in Harris County examined by the Wren Collective. Out of those cases, four clients never even met with an attorney before their trial. Of the cases reviewed, 93 percent involved people of color.

Everyone deserves to have their rights equally protected when life and liberty are on the line— justice can’t be contingent on wealth and privilege or an unfair court-appointed attorney system. The recently released study, conducted by former public defenders who provide criminal justice research and policy analysis, exposes an “utterly broken” court-appointed attorney system in Harris County.

The most extreme impacts of this system can be seen in death penalty cases, where a defense attorney would typically work thousands of hours interviewing witnesses and investigating their clients’ unique circumstances. In the cases evaluated in Harris County, however, overburdened court-appointed attorneys completed only a handful of visits with their clients, and failed to present evidence that, in some instances, would render them ineligible for the death penalty. This is unconscionable.

While death penalty cases are the most egregious, a fundamentally flawed court-appointed system can lead to devastating miscarriages of justice in all types of cases. Numerous attorneys receive more than 100 court appointments a year, and others have been appointed to over 600 cases in a year. It’s impossible to advocate for true justice with that kind of workload. Under a system that gives judges the purse strings, control of the calendar, and the ability to make appointments in criminal cases, lawyers may not push back to zealously advocate. Fundamental rights to due process and a fair trial cannot be guaranteed.

It’s well past time to move away from this system of assembly-line injustice that allows private attorneys to line their pockets with public dollars without any safeguards for people who are fighting for their lives and liberty. As the report concludes, the solution to fix this broken system is through a robust public defender office that operates independently from judicial influence.

Here in Harris County, we’ve begun to turn around our history of weak indigent defense.  Commissioners Court is working with judges, attorneys, indigent defense experts, and advocates to transform our indigent defense system into a national model, with responsible caseloads, rigorous training and supervision, and true independence.

Due process and the right to counsel are promised to all people regardless of how much money they have or whether they can afford an attorney. We are working so that Harris County lives up to that promise.


Rodney Ellis