Friday, November 29, 2013

Poor Defendant Convicted and Executed Due to Incompetent Counsel – No Problem

Rich Defendant Convicted of Murder Claims Incompetent Counsel – Let Him Out

[Update:  Mr. Skakel has been released on bond.   Can't have the rich and privileged in jail with the common criminals, can we?]

One of the truly awful legacies of conservative justices on the Supreme Court is the failure of convicted felons facing the death penalty to get new trials because they had incompetent lawyers defending them.  Yes, those accused of capital crimes are entitled to representation, but all too often that representation is inadequate, inexperienced and in some cases just plain incompetent.  Yet the claim for relief is usually turned down by the courts and more often than not the convicted is executed or forced to serve a long jail sentence.

Of course these rules do not apply if one is rich, despite the fact that being rich means being able to hire the best attorneys available and so that defense should almost never be allowed on an appeal.  But this is not reality, as the case of Michael Skakel illustrates.  Mr. Skakel is in the news for two reasons.  The first is that he is, erroneously, linked to the Kennedy family.  Mr. Skakel is related to the woman who married Robert Kennedy, and thus the lazy press constantly refers to him as a Kennedy or Kennedy relative when he is not.  But it makes a good story and sells newspapers so the error persists.

The second reason why Mr. Skakel is in the news is that despite having the money to hire the best attorney for his defense in being accused of murder, he is now successfully appealing that conviction on the basis of inadequate counsel.

The family’s perseverance and deep pockets — Mr. Skakel’s grandfather was an industrial magnate — have brought Mr. Skakel to a pivotal moment: Last month, a judge in Superior Court in Rockville, Conn., overturned the 11-year-old verdict. On Thursday, when Mr. Skakel appears in a Stamford courtroom for a bail hearing, he could walk free while he awaits a new trial.

How did he do this?  Money of course, lots of money.

STAMFORD, Conn. — Since Michael C. Skakel’s conviction in 2002 in the 1975 murder of his Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley when they were both 15, Mr. Skakel and his family have spared no expense in their efforts to clear his name.

They hired expensive lawyers, private investigators and expert witnesses, one at $250 an hour. They fired Mickey Sherman, the defense lawyer who failed to win his case in 2002, and hired Hubert J. Santos, a prominent Hartford lawyer. They brought in Theodore B. Olson, a solicitor general of the United States under President George W. Bush, to petition the Supreme Court. They tracked down witnesses in Tampa, Fla., and Spain. They hired lawyers to mount an offensive on news organizations that broadcast misinformation about Mr. Skakel and sued the celebrity news personality Nancy Grace for libel.

Now while we are personally disposed towards believing Mr. Skakel guilty of murder, because in his original trial he had a more than adequate defense counsel,

Mr. Skakel and his supporters spent more than $2 million on his defense in the first trial, according to court records. 

we really don’t know or care if he is able to buy his way to a new trial and possible acquittal. If there really is not enough evidence to convict him, he is entitled to be set free.  What is important here is the distinction between money and poverty, between being successful at claiming inadequate counsel, despite spending millions on his defense, for a rich person who gets a new trial and being unsuccessful at claiming inadequate counsel for a poor person who gets executed. 

But it may be that if Mr. Skakel is acquitted he will spend the rest of his life trying to right the wrongs of the not so wealthy who cannot afford adequate counsel.  Maybe he will devote his wealth to providing indigent defendants facing the death penalty with the same quality of defense that he has for himself.  But probably his reaction to such suggestions is that he did not get special treatment, that any poor defendant on death row in Texas has the freedom to spend millions on a claim of inadequate representation.  Yeah, we’ll go with that one.

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