On October 14th, 2016, Jules Letemps was exonerated from prison. He had been charged with sexual assault and kidnapping. At trial, his defense attorney failed to analyze the deposition of the forensic expert during the trial. This deposition contained details of the testing of semen which was found not to have belonged to Letemps, although the forensic expert could not be sure due to the amount of dilution the semen had undergone. During his incarceration, Letemps obtained the help of Centurion Ministries who fully examined this deposition, where experts in serology concluded that the forensic expert had applied an incorrect standard of testing the dilution of the semen. The experts employed by Centurion also excluded Letemps as the source of the semen- which was supposed to have been obtained by the attacker. The new evidence found by Centurion Ministries, combined with Letemps’ original alibi created so much doubt around his conviction that two days before Letemps’ retrial, he was exonerated.
A large problem that defendants have when at trial is obtaining an adequate defense. This post in the blog series Reasons for Exoneration, will focus on the inability of defense lawyers to properly represent their clients. Often states employ inexperienced, overworked, and sometimes incompetent defense lawyers due to a lack of funds to compensate lawyers for their work.
Should a defendant be convicted of a charge and request post-conviction help on the grounds of inadequate defense, and if an Innocence Project representative has the ability to prove inadequate defense (failure to investigate or sins of omission, for example), then the exoneree has not received a fair trial, has had their rights violated, and it is possible that they will be granted a new trial or the charges against them could be dropped altogether, as in the case of Jules Letemps.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has just recently completed an investigation into the Louisiana Public Defender system in February of 2017. During this investigation, the “Delphi Method” was used to determine the number of hours a defense lawyer should be spending on cases in order to present an adequate defense in court. This method consists of expert panels of public defenders and private defense lawyers estimating the amount of time that should be spent on a case. For a low-level felony case, lawyers should be spending an estimated 21.99 hours to investigate. For a felony case carrying a sentence of life without parole, the consensus was that a defense lawyer should be investigating the case for 200.67 hours. At their current rate, Louisiana state Public Defenders only have the capacity to be handling 21 percent of their workload effectively.
Due to this serious issue of inadequate defense, states such as Louisiana and Utah are currently being sued for a failure to meet the constitutional rights of their low-income defendants. For example, in Louisiana Orleans Parish Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton and Lousiana State Public Defender James T. Dixon Jr. are being sued after the creation of a waiting list for cases, since there are not enough public defenders to “ethically, constitutionally, or within standers handle those cases” which fall beyond the limited number set by Bunton. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana are suing on the grounds that this waiting list violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection of the laws. In the past, other states have been sued such as New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Idaho, California, and Missouri on similar grounds. Should the problem of inadequate defense remain unresolved, there will likely be more states to be sued in the coming future.
Some proposals to reform this broken system include increased funding for Public Defender’s offices and court-appointed attorneys, and to enact and abide by standards set for workload limits, professional independence, and training requirements. In 2004, Virginia led the nation in the number of executions per capita. Reform was passed after a study completed by a law professor tied the decline of death penalty cases to lack of defense lawyers. This prompted the state legislature to create a system of regional defense offices to handle trial-level capital cases. Since 2005, the average sentencing for a death penalty case doubled from one to two days, to four days. On top of that, Virginia hasn’t executed anyone since 2011. The “new” Virginia death penalty is never imposed, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises constitutional concerns. The reform in Virginia and other evidence presented in this article reinforces the words of Stephen Bright, “[The death penalty is] not imposed upon those who commit the worst crimes, but upon those who have the misfortune to be assigned to the worst lawyers.”