Our country is responsible for an unjust justice system.
The Constitution states that all accused have the right to representation and a fair trial, no matter how much money they earn. For those in the lower to middle class, this right is threatened because public defenders are overworked and underpaid. Many public defenders meet their clients for the first time minutes before trial.
Eighty to 90 percent of those accused by state prosecutors must rely on the state’s indigent defense programs, according to testimony by Robin Dahlberg, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, before Congress in March. Dahlberg explained that it is common for prosecuting attorney offices to have a budget as much as three times greater than those of indigent defense offices.
“The failure of states to adequately fund and administer public defender services infects the entire criminal justice system,” Dahlberg said. “This failed system compromises our ability to produce just results.”
Lawyers and advocates have filed lawsuits in states from New York to Arizona citing evidence that low-income people are having their constitutional rights violated by not being able to receive a fair trial. In Kansas and Minnesota, public defenders are refusing cases outright, according to a National Public Radio report released Aug. 17, 2009.
Eddie Joe Lloyd was wrongly convicted in 1985 of the rape and murder of 16-year-old Michelle Jackson. Innocently wanting to help the investigation of Michelle’s death, Lloyd contacted police while he was in a hospital receiving treatment for mental illness. Police then interrogated Lloyd at the hospital multiple times before he confessed to the murder with horrific, specific details – all details the police had informed him of during their interrogations, according to the Innocence Project, a national advocacy group.
Lloyd was represented by a public defender who conducted no investigation into Lloyd’s mental health or confession. This lawyer withdrew from the case eight days before trial. A second attorney was appointed and the trial was not postponed. The trial attorney did not speak with the pre-trial attorney, did not question the details of the investigation, did not cross-examine police officers involved and did not call any defense witnesses, but did give a five-minute closing statement. Within an hour the jury convicted Lloyd, and he was given a life sentence without parole.
A third public defender took Lloyd’s appeal. The attorney never once met Lloyd or accepted any of his phone calls. The appeal failed and Lloyd filed a complaint to the state about his lawyer. According to court documents, Lloyd’s attorney refuted the complaint by stating, “This is a sick individual who raped, kidnapped and strangled a young woman on her way to school. His claim of my wrongdoing is frivolous, just as is his existence. Both should be terminated.”
Lloyd’s constitutional rights to an adequate defense and a fair trial were not upheld until the Innocence Project provided an attorney for Lloyd. A fair investigation ensued, and DNA evidence supported Lloyd’s innocence. After 17 years in prison, in 2002 Lloyd was exonerated and released. Lloyd tragically died two years later and Michelle’s killer has still not been found.
Lloyd’s case highlights multiple systematic flaws with our judicial system at multiple levels of government. Our local, state and federal governments need to reevaluate our judicial system and ensure that they are protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens. Doing so is the first way our country can begin to apologize to Lloyd and his family for violating his constitutional rights and every second of every hour he spent behind bars for 17 long years. Bobby Gomez is a senior in elementary education. Please send comments to email@example.com.