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Sunday, April 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Mike Fancher / Times executive editor
Justice in America stands on fundamental principles such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, but for many poor people in Washington state, there is no justice.
Today's Seattle Times special report, "The Empty Promise of an Equal Defense," tells a shameful story of justice denied because the public-defense system in our state is so inadequate. It has been this way for decades and may be getting worse.
King County is an exception and possibly a model for what could be done, but in most other counties, the problems are acute and chronic. Public-defense lawyers are underpaid and overworked, and the system in some counties practically guarantees inadequate legal representation for poor defendants.
Reporters Ken Armstrong, Florangela Davila and Justin Mayo have pulled together a compelling report that continues tomorrow and Tuesday in The Times. Their effort began last spring when Armstrong had lunch with an attorney who told him how the system creates a financial disincentive for lawyers to work very hard for indigent clients.
The heart of the matter is that anyone charged with a crime is entitled to legal counsel, as set forth in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the guarantee extends to state courts and entitles indigent defendants to an attorney at public expense.
The case of Clarence Gideon resulted in the words heard so often in television police shows: "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you."
The court said, "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours."
Forty-one years later, the system in Washington state doesn't live up to that promise.
Armstrong said he wasn't surprised there is a problem, but he was stunned by its magnitude, especially the staggering caseloads of some lawyers. For example, one lawyer cited in the series had a caseload 6-½ times greater than the recommended standard.
Another lawyer had so many felony cases, he could give each an average of only four hours. "That I found shocking. You simply can't do justice to each case," said Armstrong.
Jacqui Banaszynski, who edited the series, said readers might not be surprised to learn the system isn't perfect, but they should be disturbed at how bad it is.
"Considerable public money is being spent to provide at least the illusion of public defense. But in too many cases, use of that money isn't being accounted for. Quite bluntly, no one is watching the store," she said.
"The failure of the public-defense system in this country runs so broad and so deep as to be a scandal. It raises issues about class and privilege that can't be ignored," she added. "It's a scandal we're all complicit in, as taxpayer-citizens, whether we know it or not.
"There is likely little will to change those realities, since doing so would cost even more money, and since that money would be spent on a cause that's not universally popular, that has no real constituency and that we've been allowed to ignore for 40 years now."
So, why do we invest time, energy and money in reporting a story like this if chances are it won't change anything?
Banaszynski answered, "In doing public-affairs journalism, we strive to address wrongs, and hope they will be righted in concrete ways. But that's not all journalism is about.
"One of our fundamental promises as fundamental as the promise of right to counsel for the poor is in society is to serve as a voice for the voiceless. There are few more voiceless than accused defendants who are at the mercy of the criminal justice system and have no strong lawyer-advocate standing at their side.
"Journalism also promises to hold a mirror up to society to all of us and asks us to see what kind of world we're building. Even if nothing changes, or changes very slowly, that needs to be a conscious, informed decision not inaction by default and ignorance."
Davila said, "I do hope readers learn something from the series, even if, yes, they might get frustrated and throw their hands up and say, 'Now what?' "
She's also hopeful the series will prompt officials "to at least acknowledge professional standards and to pause and take a harder look at how justice is being meted out in their jurisdictions."
Davila points out that "no one can ever predict when he or she might end up in a courtroom either as a defendant, or as the mother, father, sister, spouse of a defendant.
"Defendants poor or rich are vulnerable from the get-go. They're setting foot in an arena they're likely unfamiliar with, in a venue that has its own language, and they trust that the person sitting beside them has their best interests in mind. It's powerlessness alongside power."
Armstrong said it is disheartening that reality in Washington state is so far removed from the promise in the Gideon case. "The idea of fairness is one we give lip service more than we give money. There's not a lot of political capital in taking it on, so I don't anticipate impact in that way."
Journalists, he added, can't let impact dictate what they write about. What matters most is informing the people.
"The system relies on people caring. If you don't care, the system fails. It doesn't take care of itself," he said. "If you care about justice then you have a chance of obtaining justice."
Inside the Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
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