Death row lawyers get paid while messing up—- Attorneys who continue to
miss appeal dates are still getting cases
Texas lawyers have repeatedly missed deadlines for appeals on behalf of
more than a dozen death row inmates in the last 2 years yet judges
continue to assign life-or-death capital cases and pay hundreds of
thousands in fees to those attorneys, a Chronicle records review shows.
Missing deadlines means their clients can be automatically denied
constitutionally mandated reviews before their execution. Houston lawyer
Jerome Godinich missed 3 recent federal deadlines, the Chronicle reported
in March. One client was executed in February after the federal appeal was
filed too late. In March, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals chastened
Godinich for using the same excuse a malfunctioning after-hours filing
machine for missing another deadline for a man still on death row.
A recent review of the Harris County Auditor's billing records and
district court records shows Godinich remains one of the county's busiest
appointed criminal attorneys, billing for $713,248, including fees for 21
capital cases. He was appointed to handle 1,638 Harris County cases
involving 1,400 different defendants from 2006-March 2009, court records
He refused comment.
Godinich is not the only attorney to miss death row deadlines. A San
Antonio lawyer failed to file 4 state appeals on time, according to
opinions last year by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A Fort Worth
lawyer has missed both state and federal deadlines in at least 5 recent
cases, though he sought and was granted more time to prepare on 4 of them,
according to court records reviewed by the Chronicle.
The failure to file such appeals, called writs of habeas corpus, means
death row inmates risk missing their last chance to submit new claims of
innocence or evidence that could alter their conviction or death
sentence. State judges can be flexible, but federal judges follow tight
and sometimes confusing deadlines.
Only one of three Texas lawyers who repeatedly missed such death row
deadlines has faced fines or been forced to forgo fees by judges.
Suzanne Kramer, of San Antonio, was removed in October 2008 from 3 state
appeals she failed to file on time and was fined $750 by the Texas Court
of Criminal Appeals. She is handling a fourth case over protests.
"I know if this lawyer stays on my case I'll definitely get executed,"
death row inmate Juan Castillo wrote the Chronicle. "She's refused to
respond to any of my letters she's never come to see me to discuss my
case (and) my writ was due Dec. 11, 2006 and she never filed it."
Appeal filed incorrectly
The CCA allowed Kramer to continue representing Castillo after criticizing
her claim that she mailed in his appeal on a Saturday to the office of a
Bexar County judge. The appeal was never filed with the county clerk, as
required. "Judges don't file lawsuits. I guess that would go on her
credibility as a lawyer," said Gerry Rickhoff, district court clerk in
Kramer, who did not return phone calls to her office, has been paid
$86,577 in fees by Bexar County since 2007, but went unpaid for the 3 late
appeals by CCA order.
Jack V. Strickland Jr., a Fort Worth lawyer who specializes in capital
case law, also has repeatedly missed death row deadlines. However, judges
accepted his explanations and allowed late filings for 4 of 5 appeals.<>P>
Being overwhelmed on capital cases was the excuse for 2 late 2008 filings.
Strickland told the court that hed been hospitalized several months before
the appeals were due, then "began a new death penalty trial right after
his recuperation period, was in the process of preparing another death
penalty writ application which was due mid-September, was preparing for
trial in another case, and had presented 5 lectures and papers in the
previous 60 days," according to a CCA opinion.
In another case, Strickland missed both state and then federal deadlines
for the death row inmate, Quintin Jones. Before losing his federal appeal
due to lateness, Jones repeatedly tried to get another attorney.
Strickland said he "almost begged the magistrate judge to appoint someone
else. Jones and I had a very unpleasant relationship." He was left on the
Strickland blamed the deadline error on miscalculating the due date .
He earned $428,850.62 in court-appointed fees in Tarrant County from
2006-2009 . More than a quarter were bills for late appeals , auditor's
(source: Houston Chronicle)