Sep 7, 2009

NPR Critiques Michigan's Court-Appointed Defense Lawyers

National Public Radio recently ran a segment on its "All Things Considered" program which was highly critical of the way lawyers are appointed by county circuit courts to defend the indigent accused here in Michigan.  Click here to link to the full story. 

The piece attracted dozens of comments.  NPR focused on one of the "bad apples"; Attorney Bob Slamenka from Detroit.  Slamenka just never seems to have sufficient time, energy or resources to pull-off competent representation of his court-appointed felony clients.  In addition to a series of grievances, Slamenka is now notorious for his appellate representation of wrongfully-convicted sex offender, Eddie Lloyd.  Attorney Slamenk's appeal failed, as do the overwhelming majority of all appeals from criminal convictions in Michigan.  This is nothing new.  The problem arose, however, when Lloyd filed a grievance against Slamenka prompting the following response from the attorney:

"This is a sick individual who raped, kidnapped and strangled a young woman on her way to school. His claim of my wrongdoing is frivolous, just as is his existence. Both should be terminated."

Ultimately, Lloyd was proved innocent by DNA evidence but died just two years after his release from 17-years in prison.  Consequently, Slamenka's ill-worded grievance rejoinder is now "exhibit a" for the what is wrong with the court-appointed criminal defense system.

All attorneys represent criminal clients they suspect are guilty.  When the client loses his case, the attorney is often the first to blame.  The criminal defense attorney functions as a "constitutional warrior", forcing the government to prove its case, even when the odds are against success (for the accused).  If the criminal appellate attorney does his/her job properly, a convicted felon benefits from a well-researched and well-reasoned brief from which his conviction can be tested in the appellate courts.  This principle is fundamental to our system of criminal justice and separation of powers:  everyone gets the opportunity to appeal a conviction.

Unfortunately, Michigan does rank near the bottom of all states in the category of public resources devoted to indigent criminal defense.  In this era of fiscal short-falls, this will not change soon.  Roster attorneys with the Michigan Assigned Appellate Counsel System receive as many as one assignment each week from the Wayne Circuit Court.  These attorneys are paid about twenty five cents on the dollar for what their services are worth in the world of privately retained-counsel.  This type of public legal service is essential if our constitutional principles are to be sustained in the 21st Century.  

It sure would be nice if cutting edge defense tools, such as DNA analysis, and the use of court-appointed experts, were available to exonerate the truly innocent.  Yet, unless the court-appointed attorney is focused on his game, all the funding in the world won't save the client.

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