Tuesday, January 22, 2008

State Can't Scrimp on Public Defenders

The state's public defender offices are one of the best bargains in state government. It costs Florida taxpayers less than $200 per case to have indigent criminal defendants represented, and the quality of that representation is generally rated as quite good. Just try and hire a criminal defense attorney for that amount.
Unfortunately, the Florida Public Defender Association says the 20 elected public defender offices around the state are facing critical budget shortfalls due to cuts already made by the Legislature and further cuts that may be coming.
In the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, for example, $328,000 was cut from the 2007-2008 fiscal year budget during the October special session. On top of that, 1 percent of its appropriated funds have been held back every quarter. (The governor, House speaker and Senate president implemented this hold-back for state operations as a way to prepare for further revenue shortfalls.)
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger says that all told, his office is looking at about $1 million hit out of a $16 million budget, if those held-back funds are not returned. And that means laying off employees or furloughing people for long periods.
"Ninety-four percent of the state-budgeted money goes for salaries and benefits," Dillinger says. If more cuts occur to this year's budget, as are expected during the coming Legislative session, he might have to stop staffing certain offices. Dillinger has already laid that out as a contingency plan.
There are some expenses in state government that can be put off, and there are there are essential functions that have to continue. Providing defendants an attorney is a constitutional duty. The state risks crippling prosecutions if the public defender offices don't have the manpower to represent those accused.
Already, public defender caseloads around the state have reached well beyond that recommended by professional legal associations. Just look at what has gone on over time. In 1975, public defenders handled 134 cases for each funded position. Now that number stands at 306. When attorneys are asked to do too much, they breach their ethical duty to provide effective counsel and at some point have to stop accepting more cases.
The governor should release the money that has been held back from the public defender budgets, and the leadership in Tallahassee should exempt these offices from further budget cuts. When times are tough it makes sense to set priorities and fund the necessities rather than resort to simplistic across-the-board cuts. Paying the full freight for our public defender system is one of those necessities.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial
Published January 21, 2008

Saturday, January 12, 2008

True and Untrue Confessions

What did Martin Tankleff look and sound like when he confessed in 1988 to bludgeoning and slashing his parents to death? Did he seem like a killer or a confused 17-year-old being pressured into admitting something that he did not do? We’ll never know. There is no video or audio recording, just an incomplete narrative, handwritten by detectives, which Mr. Tankleff signed, quickly repudiated, and spent nearly two decades trying to undo.

Mr. Tankleff, now 36, was released from prison this month after a New York State appeals court overturned his murder conviction, ruling that new evidence would likely have led the jury to find him not guilty. The district attorney, Thomas Spota, then announced that he would not pursue the case. After spending half his life behind bars, Mr. Tankleff is free, and his parents’ killer or killers presumably remain at large.

His confession came after hours of interrogation during which detectives lied to Mr. Tankleff, telling him that his mortally wounded father had identified his son as the attacker. “Could I have blacked out?” he asked. “Could I be possessed?” Largely on the basis of his own words, he was tried and convicted.

The Innocence Project, the watchdog group that helped to defend Mr. Tankleff, has long argued that false confessions are far more frequent than is commonly believed. The group claims that in more than a quarter of cases in which defendants were later exonerated by DNA evidence, they had made incriminating statements, given confessions or pleaded guilty. Suspects do this for many reasons — because they are coerced, threatened, frightened, drunk or high, mentally impaired or ignorant of the law. Some do it because they have been lied to.

The Innocence Project, many other civil liberties groups and growing numbers of police departments and prosecutors’ offices, argue that interrogations in major criminal cases should be recorded. The practice, they say, would deter false convictions by discouraging misconduct and manipulation by the police. It would give judges and jurors a tool to assess a confession’s authenticity. It would protect the police from false claims of abuse, create a clear record of suspects’ statements and it would bolster public confidence in the legal system.

Illinois, Alaska and Minnesota are among more than 500 jurisdictions that routinely record police interrogations. A bill that would require videotaping of questioning in felony cases passed the New York State Assembly last year but stalled in the Senate. The Legislature should promptly revive and pass the bill, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer should sign it into law.

The Tankleff case and the recent high-profile exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he confessed to but did not commit, both argue strongly for fixing this glaring flaw in New York’s justice system.

A News York Times Editorial publlshed January 12, 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Florida Criminal Justice Explained in English and Spanish

The Sarasota County Bar Association announces the release of a new video entitled, “The Florida Criminal Justice System” or “El Sistema Juridico Criminal en la Florida.” The video gives a brief description of law enforcement, arrest, the first court appearance, attorneys, case investigation and jury trials. It is intended to educate English and Spanish speaking persons about what to expect if a loved one is arrested.
The video had its genesis in the television program “Law and Sarasota,” jointly produced by the Education Channel and the Sarasota County Bar Association. This half hour program focuses on area judges and attorneys, and was intended to educate the local population about the workings of the legal system. In 2006, the program won the public service award from the National Association of Bar Executives.
Host of the program, Adam Tebrugge, and Executive Director of the Bar Association, Jan Jung, then pursued a grant from the Florida Bar Foundation to present a Spanish version of the program. This was prompted, in part, by the growth of the local Hispanic population. In 2005, court interpreters assisted over 7,300 Hispanic clients in the Sarasota legal system. Recognizing the need, the Florida Bar Foundation awarded a $4,000 grant for the proposed program.
Tebrugge worked with Spanish speaking attorney Varinia Van Ness, and producer Bob Gray, to develop the new video. “I want to make sure that everyone who comes to Court on a criminal matter understands what is going on” said Tebrugge. “Varinia was a great assistance to the project,” Tebrugge added. “She provides services to many Hispanic clients and knew what information we needed to convey.” Attorney Van Ness is also hosting the Spanish language version of the program at her web-site, http://www.vannesslawfirm.com/FloridaBar.html.
The DVD of the program will be available for free distribution to schools, libraries and local employers, by contacting the Sarasota County Bar Association at 941-366-6703. The Sarasota County Bar Association is proud to sponsor this video, which is in line with its goals of advancing professionalism, encouraging public service, and providing legal resources and services to all in the community.