Archive for August 30th, 2005

A Fading Constitution

Tuesday, August 30th, 2005

This isn’t about DUI specifically, but about the failure of the criminal justice system generally. Some of us may recall in the not-too-distant past such things as the right to competent counsel and the right to speedy trial.  For others, you may be interested in something called the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial….and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

The Sixth Amendment was one of ten amendments to the Constitution which constituted something called the Bill of Rights.  Although of some historical significance, this document is rarely used today……

8 years in a Louisiana jail, but he never went to trial

By Laura Parker, USA Today, Mon Aug 29, 6:34 AM ET When he was charged with murder in 1996, James Thomas, an impoverished day laborer in Baton Rouge, became like many other criminal defendants: With no money to hire a lawyer, he had to rely on the government to provide him with one. He then spent the next 8½ years in jail, waiting for his case to go to trial. It never did.

Last spring, a Louisiana state appeals court ruled that prosecutors had waited too long to try him, and it threw the charge out. By then, Thomas was 34, his alibi witness for the night of the murder had died of kidney disease, and his case had become a symbol of the increasing problems within the nation’s public defender system….

More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that every person charged with a crime is entitled to legal representation – provided by the government, if necessary – the promise is an empty one for many low-income defendants. Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association in Washington, D.C., found in a nationwide survey this spring of indigent legal services.

The survey found that such programs across the nation are short on lawyers, investigators and other staff, and that they frequently fail to investigate the charges against the client, hire necessary experts and make appropriate motions in court.

One of the worst examples the association found was the case of another Louisiana man, Johnny Lee Bell. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole last year after meeting with a public defender for what Bell says was just 11 minutes before trial….

(Thanks to Jeff Voll of Los Angeles.)

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