A recently released RAND Corp. study finds that public defenders in Philadelphia reduce their clients' murder conviction rate by 19 percent and lower the probability their client gets a life sentence by 62 percent, over court appointed counsel, reported the Philadephia Inquirer.
The RAND researchers, who based their conclusions on a review of cases of 3,157 Philadelphians charged with murder from 1994 to 2005, said the findings show "an enormous and troubling chasm" between the effectiveness of defenders - who have a highly regarded team handling homicide cases - and appointed lawyers.
Lawyers get a flat fee to prepare a case for trial: $1,333 if the case is resolved before trial and $2,000 if the case goes to trial. After the first day of trial, lawyers get $200 for three hours or less of daily court time and $400 for more than three hours, reported the Inquirer.
Pennsylvania is the only state to leave the responsibility for funding defenses for indigent murder defendants to the counties - a special hardship for cash-strapped larger cities such as Philadelphia, where impoverished defendants account for 95 percent of murder cases.
Philadelphia pays appointed lawyers in death-penalty cases less than any other Pennsylvania county, according to a petition challenging the flat-fee system filed by Marc Bookman, executive director of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Atlantic Center for Capital Representation.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner agreed that "the conclusions should not be a surprise to anybody who has been close to the system for any period of time."
In September, the state Supreme Court appointed Lerner to do fact-finding on the Atlantic Center challenge. One hearing was enough to convince the city's ranking judges that the fee system should be adjusted, and talks are ongoing.
The RAND findings dovetailed with an Inquirer report earlier this year that more than 125 capital-murder trials in Pennsylvania - 69 from Philadelphia - have been reversed or remanded by appeals courts because serious mistakes by defense lawyers deprived the accused of a fair trial.
That number amounts to almost a third of 391 capital convictions in Pennsylvania since the modern death penalty took effect in 1978.
According to the Inquirer, the RAND researchers estimated that Philadelphians wrongly convicted and serving life terms or longer terms than needed add up to 6,400 years of excess prison costs: a taxpayer bill of more than $200 million.
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