Indigent defense idea to get first test in US

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Posted: Dec 28, 2014 10:24 AM
Indigent defense idea to get first test in US

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (AP) — Tommy Vaughn knows his clients may be distrustful when a court appoints him to handle their case. Without enough money to hire their own lawyer, defendants are often suspicious that court-appointed attorneys will provide a poor defense or just try to coerce a quick guilty plea.

"I kind of assume that's what they're thinking when I first meet them," said Vaughn, who has worked as a defense attorney in Texas for 2½ years.

The issue of trust has long been part of a larger discussion about the quality of indigent defense in the U.S. Now, the Central Texas county where Vaughn works will be the first in the country to give these individuals the ability to choose their own attorneys at the government's expense.

It's part of a pilot program in Comal County that could determine whether the idea could be adopted in other jurisdictions and provide a new wrinkle to how the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments are exercised.

Under the new system, a defendant who is declared indigent will be given a list of 30 to 50 attorneys who have been approved by the county. An individual will have a day to make a choice.

Legal experts have suggested that defendants will be more invested in their cases, and there will be more accountability for attorneys.

"When the attorney has to earn the business for these indigent defense appointments, as opposed to being their turn in the rotation, they have new and stronger incentives to provide good quality services," said Edwin Colfax, project manager for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which gave Comal County a $200,000 grant for the program, tentatively set to begin Jan. 12.

In countries such as Australia, Canada and England, indigent defendants have for years been able to choose their own lawyer.

In Texas, the most common indigent defense model is the "wheel" system, where judges appoint whichever lawyer on a previously approved list is next up on the rotation. Some court systems in Texas and across the country also use public defender offices or contract with attorneys or law firms to provide indigent defense services.

The commission envisions the idea working in Comal partly because of its manageable size. The county has about 118,000 residents between Austin and San Antonio.

It's unclear how well the concept would work in larger jurisdictions with an increased number of cases and possible issues with determining how defendants would be informed about the quality of attorneys. The program will be tested for a year.

Alex Bunin, chief public defender with the Harris County Public Defender's Office in Houston, said attorney choice could be tried in large counties, but issues such as funding for adequate pay, investigative services and other resources would have to be addressed.

Otherwise, the idea "will only be a novelty," he said.

San Antonio resident Valerie Williams said she's had mixed success with appointed attorneys.

Williams said she was arrested for driving while intoxicated in 2002 and was convicted, placed on probation and fined $2,000 after her court-appointed attorney did little work. Recently, another court-appointed attorney in Comal County managed to get her DWI and drug charges dismissed.

"I think (Comal County's program) would make people feel a little more confident about what they are going through," said Williams, 40.

Over the years, indigent defense has been much criticized across the U.S., in part because of underfunding. Court-appointed attorneys usually earn far less than privately hired lawyers.

Dib Waldrip, a judge in Comal County, said he's unsure simply "throwing money" at indigent defense will fix its problems and is looking forward to finding out if attorney choice can make courts more efficient.

Ernie Lewis, executive director of the National Association for Public Defense, said any improvements from attorney choice won't mean much without additional funding to provide attorneys with resources to mount strong defenses.

"A good public defender system is going to be a check on an overaggressive police department or a prison system that is depriving inmates of their fundamental human rights," said Lewis, who ran Kentucky's public defender system for 12 years. "We as a society have to have good, adequately funded, high-quality public defender systems if it's going to play those roles."

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