Attorneys overworked in capital cases—-About 1/3 are over recommended
limit on felonies Too Many Cases?
A Chronicle analysis of Harris County 16,000 felony case assignments from
More than 150 Felony Clients Per Year: 10 lawyers approved by judges to
represent clients facing life or death sentences regularly exceed a
nationally recommended limit of 150 felony clients per year
About 200 Violations: Lawyers apparently accepted more than 5 felony
assignments per day more than 200 times, despite judges' rules.
Frequent capital assignments: A dozen cases were assigned to the same
lawyers less than 60 days apart, another violation of judges' rules.
Lawyer Jerome Godinich, chastised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this
year for repeatedly failing to meet federal death penalty deadlines, has
represented an average of 360 felony clients per year in Harris County a
caseload that surpasses every other similar attorney.
But even among other Harris County attorneys approved for death penalty
cases, his heavy workload is no exception.
In all, 10 of 32 Harris County lawyers approved by judges to represent
clients facing life or death sentences regularly exceeded the recommended
limit of 150 felony clients per year a standard established in 1973 and
adopted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the Houston
Chronicle found. The lawyers, each assigned anywhere from 1 to 10 capital
cases, simultaneously juggled 160 to 360 other felony clients each year,
according to an analysis of official district court appointments from
Stephen Bright, an expert in capital case representation who has taught at
Yale and Harvard law schools and reviewed the Chronicle's findings, said
death penalty lawyers have no business handling nearly 400 clients in one
year. "That's way too many cases and would not leave time for any other
cases, particularly capital cases."
Some felony cases are resolved in minutes, while death cases can take a
year. Heavy caseloads limit the time an attorney can devote to each
indigent defendant, a job paid for with tax dollars.
Harris County District Court judges do not monitor caseloads of attorneys
they appoint, even for death penalty cases. Through their rules, judges
attempt to restrict how frequently felony and capital cases are assigned .
Even those rules, adopted after one overloaded capital attorney committed
suicide, have been repeatedly violated, the analysis showed.
How rules violated
The Chronicle review found 220 days in which capital-approved attorneys
appear to have accepted more than the limit of 5 assignments per day. Some
took as many as 10 cases. It also found a dozen examples where judges
violated their own requirement that capital murder case appointments be
spaced at least 60 days apart. In some cases, judges knowingly broke their
own rule because of unusual circumstances. In others, there were
"glitches" in an internal tracking system used to prevent that.
One lawyer twice accepted 2 capital cases on the same day. The 1st time,
Attorney Laine Lindsey said he accepted 2 appointments from the same judge
to replace a lawyer stricken with cancer. Later, 2 different judges asked
him to take cases on the same day. Lindsey said he didn't know about the
rule and no one mentioned it.
Godinich took 3 capital appointments in less than one 60-day period in
2008. One client was found incompetent to stand trial after drinking
toilet water, disrobing and claiming he was Jesus Christ II while in the
Harris County jail; another was a 15-year-old who pleaded guilty to felony
murder charges and accepted a life sentence without possibility of appeal;
the 3rd hired another lawyer.
Godinich has agreed to take as many as 10 simultaneous capital cases over
the past 5 years, though only a few were death penalty cases.
Only 1 other attorney, Robert Morrow, has recently taken as many
simultaneous capital cases, records show. But Morrow uses a team of legal
interns and lawyers involved in a mentorship program to help with his
assignments and specializes almost exclusively in capital work.
2 of the Harris County judges , Belinda Hill and Shawna Reagin, said it
might help judges to receive reports on caseloads before making capital
appointments, though both said numbers alone should not govern decisions.
"I'm not saying it would always be the determining factor, but I would
love to have that information," said Reagin, who practiced capital case
law before being elected a judge in 2008.
Harris County District Court Clerk Loren Jackson said his staff or the
court administration could build a tool to track attorney appointments.
"We would love to be able to give that information to the judges. All they
have to do is ask," he said.
Godinich, who juggles federal cases and misdemeanors along with his 360
felonies, has refused interview requests. But in a letter to the
Chronicle, he defended his indigent defense record, saying he aims to
defend his clients "to the best of my ability."
"That entails working 7 days a week and investing countless hours in
preparation to ensure that my clients receive their rightful due process,"
Godinich wrote. "It is not an easy job, but it is work that is challenging
and has given me enormous personal satisfaction. That is why my clients
know who I am and depend on me to stay invested in the process."
One of his hundreds of Harris County clients, Phillip Hernandez, has been
awaiting trial for 18 months on child sexual abuse charges and claims
Godinich has never visited him in jail to discuss his innocence claim.
Hernandez's pre-trial hearing was scheduled earlier this month, but the
inmate said he learned it had been postponed at the last minute from a
bailiff. Godinich did not attend court that day, records show.
Kyle Johnson, an attorney who shares an office with Godinich, said any
criminal defense lawyer gets occasional complaints. Both he and Morrow
praised Godinich's work.
"I think he's excellent," Johnson said. "This job is Jerome's life."
(source: Houston Chronicle)