Trials & Litigation

Murder defendants may be better off with public defenders than court-appointed lawyers, study says

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Those facing a murder charge who can’t afford to hire a defense lawyer likely are better off with a public defender than a court-appointed lawyer, a Department of Justice-funded study has found.

However, a report (PDF) published in December about the study suggests that restricted state funding rather than lawyers’ skills are responsible for a significant gap in outcomes, according to NBC Philadelphia.

As the report explains: “Appointed counsel have comparatively few resources, face more complex incentives, and are more isolated than public defenders. The low pay reduces the pool of attorneys willing to take the appointments and makes doing preparation uneconomical. Moreover, the judges selecting counsel are often doing so for reasons partly unrelated to counsel’s efficacy. In contrast, the [Philadelphia] Defender Association attorney’s financial and institutional independence from judges, the steady salaries provided to attorneys and investigators, and the team approach they adopt avoid many of these problems. These institutional differences lead to the more immediate cause of the difference in outcomes—less preparation on the part of appointed counsel.”

“I’m not very surprised by it,” said attorney James Funt of Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt & Flores, who focuses his practice on criminal defense, of the conclusion reached by the report. “Court appointed lawyers, at no fault of their own, don’t have the resources.”

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “Fifty years after Gideon, lawyers still struggle to provide counsel to the indigent”

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