Edward Patrick Morgan has lived on San Quentin Prison’s Death Row without a lawyer for about two decades and what accounts as an automatic legal right is becoming harder to come by.
The California Supreme Court has been unable to allocate legal counsel because post-conviction legal challenges are breaking the system.
“Fewer young people are willing to take on the work,” said Lynne Coffin, 61, a criminal defense lawyer whose caseload accounts for a large number of Death Row cases. “It’s a huge toll on people having clients on Death Row.”
Morgan’s attorney filed an appeal to probe, uncover and challenge every possible item in Morgan’s case that was in 1996. These petitions from condemned inmates requesting habeas petition lawyers have created a bottleneck.
There is a 10-to-12-year waiting period to get a lawyer.
As of February 09, 2011, San Quentin has 673 condemned inmates. About half of those have no court-appointed attorney to address their legal challenges. This number does not account for those who are currently in hospice care or having other medical needs taken care of, or those who are out to court
“The penal system is dealing with numbers it can’t handle,” said Michael Laurence, executive director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center; a state agency that represents condemned inmates for post-conviction court challenges.
However, death penalty advocates and prosecutors lay fault to the modality of criminal defense work: “To turn over every rock in the world,” Kent Scheidegger said. Scheidegger is the legal director of the Criminal Justice League Foundation whose group supports capital punishment.
“The idea that you have to pull out every stop in every case is excessive,” he said. There’s lots of pressure but that doesn’t mean the state has to or should pay for it.”
Berkeley-based criminal defense lawyer Cliff Gardner, one of the few lawyers who has won death penalty cases before the California Supreme Court, said death penalty advocates just want to make it easier to execute someone. “The idea that you’re saving someone who is condemned to die seems to be the highest calling any criminal lawyer can have.”
California law mandates each Death Row inmate receive an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court. Each appeal deals with the events that happened at trial.
After the appeal, a condemned inmate may file a writ of habeas corpus.
Donald Specter of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office said, “Representing a Death Row inmate is emotionally draining and the pay is not that good.”
ARGUE FOR RELEASE
Specter recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for the release of 40,000 California inmates due to prison overcrowding. “Yet I’m sure that if Mr. Schwarzegger’s family or friends were on Death Row, he would want to have a Death Row attorney turn over every rock to make sure they could get the best representation to get them off of Death Row.”
The state Supreme Court did accept earlier this year a cursory post-conviction challenge from Morgan. The court accepted Morgan’s petition as a simple placeholder until a lawyer could file a proper habeas corpus petition.
This maneuver will prevent Morgan from missing important legal deadlines and permit him a chance to challenge his sentence later.