Death Penalty

Utah Supremes: Lack of Qualified Lawyers Could Force Death Penalty Reversals

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The Utah Supreme Court has refused to impose Rule 11 sanctions against two capital defense lawyers for raising “unwarranted and unjustifiable” claims in a habeas appeal. But the court’s opinion contained a warning to legislators: A lack of funding to train defense counsel could force the court to reverse capital convictions in the future.

The court ruled in the case of two lawyers defending convicted murderer Michael Anthony Archuleta, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The appeal had included about 120 claims, including some that the Utah Supreme Court had previously rejected on direct appeal.

A trial court had found that Archuleta’s habeas lawyers, Edward K. Brass and Lynn Donaldson, had filed “unwarranted and unjustifiable” habeas claims, but their conduct was not so egregious as to warrant sanctions.

The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the trial court but commented on what it said were the circumstances “giving rise to this pattern of behavior in capital cases.”

“In recent years we have become especially concerned with the diminishing pool of competent counsel in capital cases,” the court wrote in its opinion (PDF). “There is no acceptable justification for this trend. …

“It is the duty of the legislative branch to provide for adequate defense of capital defendants, including sufficient resources to attract, train, compensate and support legal counsel,” the court wrote.

“If, in the future, we find that the unavailability of competent and willing counsel impedes prompt, constitutionally sound resolution in capital cases, we may be forced to hold that the lack of such counsel is sufficient grounds for outright reversal of a capital sentence and remand for the imposition of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, for which the required degree of sophistication and skill reposed in counsel is slightly less.”

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