Death Penalty

Mistakes by Defense Lawyers Led to Reversals or Remands in Nearly a Third of Pa. Capital Cases


Mistakes by defense lawyers in more than 125 capital murder trials in Pennsylvania led to overturned convictions or new hearings over the last three decades, amounting to nearly a third of the cases.

The Philadelphia Inquirer examined the statistics on capital convictions in the state since the modern death penalty took effect in 1978. The newspaper concluded that attorney preparation is a problem in these cases, particularly in Philadelphia where court-appointed lawyers are paid only $2,000 for trial preparation and $400 a day in court.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that allows local counties to decide on funding for lawyers for the indigent, the story says, leading to “a mélange of programs of varying quality and disparate funding.”

“Lawyers fighting for defendants’ very lives often spend little time preparing their cases and put on only the barest defense,” the story says. “They neglect basic steps, such as interviewing defendants, seeking out witnesses, and investigating a defendant’s background.” In some cases, mistakes are so clear that prosecutors don’t even contest the appeals, the Inquirer says.

The story begins with the case of Willie Cooper, whose lawyer argued the Biblical passage about “an eye for an eye” backed the death penalty only for the killing of pregnant women. The lawyer, Norman Scott, had “inexplicably” forgotten that Cooper’s alleged victim was pregnant, the newspaper says. Scott told the Inquirer he routinely makes the argument in death penalty cases and used it in Cooper’s case out of habit.

Cooper’s death sentence was overturned, and a jury resentenced him to life in prison.

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