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9.08.2003

Here's A Warm Body...Now Good Luck!

In 1963, Gideon vs. Wainwright ensured that all accused receive the assistance of counsel in a court of law. Prior to that, it was a fairly hit-and-miss process for various reasons that changed from state to state. And if you were on the 'miss' side of that equation, you had little choice but to defend yourself (also known as pro se litigation, which is a citizen's right in any case) if you could not afford a lawyer. While this can have it's advantages in some cases, the task of doing it effectively is problematic, and more so in severe felony cases.

So Americans do have the right to counsel, but we cannot guess at what the caliber of that counsel will be. In far too many cases, the court-appointed counsel is an overworked, uninspired 'case-by-case' worker whose office is also underpaid. This is certainly true for the public defenders in Kirstin Lobato's case. So that puts a person directly between the rock of indigent defense and the hard place of self-representation. And many of us would rather take our chances on a lawyer, since they are supposed to know what they are doing.

But what if they don't know what they are doing? Or don't care? You only have one real chance to defend yourself against a very hostile environment. Forget presumption of innocence; we have become an extremely cynical society, and by the time we reach the point of trial, most people would assume that the officials - whom they'd like to think they could trust - were right in their accusations. Far too often, though, a public defender just isn't motivated enough to change this perception on their client's behalf. And appeals are generally a very lengthy process, often taking years of time. After all, by that point, we have been separated from our right to a speedy trial. But these are years that cannot be returned.

The point is that we are given a defender per our rights, but there is no assurance that the counsel will try to be reasonably effective in the courtroom. Nor is there any assurance that a court-appointed attorney will keep their mind on their work, even with your freedom on the line. The 'defender of your innocence' could very well end up being some guy who sits next to you and occasionally objects to the mispronunciation of his name. And we certainly cannot rely on the prosecutor to pursue any thought of innocence. The 1935 Supreme Court standard that it is in a citizen's interest that the prosecutor's duty "in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done" has long been abandoned.

But while a person may feel it is forgivable for a prosecutor to ignore this demand upon their office, it is not so possible where public defenders are concerned. It is their very job to defend, and yet too many are unable and unwilling to do so effectively. Kirstin Lobato's case is only one instance where this has cost an innocent person their freedom. This cannot be an atmosphere where justice thrives.


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