What we found
Sunday, April 4, 2004
When it comes to justice for the poor,
Washington gets what it pays for
The right to counsel is a fundamental promise of American justice as fundamental as the presumption of innocence. But when poor people are accused of crimes in much of Washington state, the promise is strained by limited budgets, exploding caseloads, overburdened lawyers and indifferent officials.
A growing number of Washington counties and towns use fixed-fee contracts for public defense, capping what they pay regardless of caseload. In Toppenish, a small Yakima County town, one lawyer was paid the equivalent of $21.08 a case.
Few counties set limits on caseloads, meaning lawyers have less time per case. In 2002, the caseload of one Cowlitz County public defender was 6½ times the limit recommended by bar groups. She dropped her contract in despair, calling the work "malpractice per se."
Some attorneys layer jobs boosting their income but diluting their time. The lawyer who made $21.08 per case in Toppenish (for 797 cases) also defended indigents in Wapato (511 cases) and presided as a municipal-court judge in Sunnyside (3,963 cases) and had a private practice.
Washington state has ignored pleas to help local governments fund public defense. Nationally, states average 50 percent of those costs; Washington pays 5.5 percent.
It is expensive to keep the promise of equal justice through public defense. And it can be a tough sell to taxpayers since many accused defendants poor or not are guilty.
But the cost can be great to those it fails.
People like Christian Rainey, a single mother who went to a rock concert and landed in jail on a drug-possession charge. Her public defender never argued that the police stop-and-search was suspect. An appeals court threw out Rainey's conviction, but not before she had to tell her three children she had been found guilty.
And people like Bladimir Analco Aquino, a teenager sentenced to 16 years for attempted murder despite having an alibi. His public defender's work was so anemic that, to this day, the judge who sentenced him is haunted by the verdict.
In this series, The Seattle Times examines the acute failing of public defense in one Washington county and how that failing is echoed throughout the justice system.
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