Poor New Yorkers who can't afford defense attorneys have been stepped on and denied their Sixth Amendment right to counsel for decades. Seven years ago, the NYCLU filed suit [PDF] against Onondaga, Schuyler, Washington, and Suffolk counties, for inadequately providing for the defense of their most vulnerable citizens, and in a few weeks the case will go to trial.
The Times reports that the U.S. Department of Justice is supporting the case with a "statement of interest," similar to an amicus brief.
“It would be a revolution in how the public-defense system is operated,” says Corey Stoughton, the lead attorney for the NYCLU. “The state thinks that the responsibility belongs to the county governments. But the counties don’t have the tax base or the political will.”
An NYCLU report [PDF] found that roughly a third of the defendants in the 10,000 annual public defense cases in Onondaga county do not meet with their attorney outside of court; investigators are almost never hired. In Washington County in 2012, seven public defenders shared a single computer. The New York State Bar Association recommends that lawyers handle no more than 150 felony cases a year. Public defenders in New York have handled as many as 420.
The report details three particularly egregious miscarriages of justice in Onondaga County:
James Adams was arrested for stealing deodorant from a drug store in Onondaga County. Without a lawyer, he was charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor, and his bail was set at $2,500 - an amount he could not afford. His lawyer did not visit him in jail for more than 90 days, and did not show up at court hearings. At trial, he was acquitted of the two felony charges and sentenced to time served. While he sat in jail for months, he lost his job and his family was evicted.
Jacqueline Winbrone was held in Onondaga County on $10,000 bail for criminal possession of a weapon - a gun her husband admitted he put in her car. She called her attorney for five days straight but he did not respond. Winbrone’s husband died during the 50 days she was in custody awaiting trial. Her lawyer failed to notify her when the case was ultimately dismissed.
Robert Kulas was charged with assault and evidence-tampering. After nearly two months of waiting, he finally spoke to his Onondaga County public defense attorney. Without investigating his side of the story, the attorney advised him to take a plea bargain for five years in prison. The attorney then left to feed his parking meter and never returned.
And another from Suffolk County:
After Gia Callaway was arrested and charged with robbery, she was arraigned in a Suffolk County court. Before she appeared for her arraignment, no one had interviewed her about what happened in her case. At arraignment, the attorney present on her behalf did not ask a single question that might have affected the outcome - such as about her criminal history or about reducing her bail. She wound up remanded to the county jail in Riverhead to await trial with a new attorney. Once there, she made multiple attempts to contact her new attorney through the Legal Aid Society but was unable to get through.
Callaway sat in jail for about four months before her assigned attorney visited her.
During that time, she stopped hearing from her husband and lost her home and
possessions. When her attorney finally visited her, their discussion lasted less than
“I have nothing left, nothing to return to . . . I just wish I would have had someone on my side,” she said.
Unbeknownst to her and without her consent, Callaway’s lawyer had her court
appearance adjourned numerous times.
“I was never asked if I wanted to be in court. It wasn’t until after reading my court
documents that I was even aware of each of the adjournments requested by my own
counsel,” said Callaway.
Worse yet, despite the existence of multiple witnesses and video footage, her lawyer
never investigated the evidence in her case, discussed defense strategy with her or
explained her what her options were. He only urged her to take a plea deal - which
resulted in her sentence of one-and-a-half to three years.
“I was railroaded through the system - just another name for them to get through,”
she said. “The facts of my case did not matter.”
The NYCLU is asking for the state to take over the public defense system and to reduce the number of caseloads given to public defenders.
“It’s broken. It’s just terrible," the executive director of the New York State Defenders Association tells the Times. "We’re just damaging people every single day.”