Monday, May 16, 2011

The Chief Justice Thinks Death Row Briefing is "Perverse," Imagine that?!

Nathan Gorenstein at has the story of a honked-off Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice.  This is an excerpt from Gorenstein's story about the death row appeal of Mark Spotz:

"After reading the appeal from prison inmate Mark Spotz, incarcerated on four murder convictions, an angry Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille (pic) unleashed perhaps the most scathing language ever from the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court.  His target was not the killer; it was the highly specialized Capital Habeas Unit, 35 mostly federally funded defense lawyers who handle death-case appeals and whom Castille accused of legal 'sabotage.'.[ . . . ]

To Castille, the massive legal document, and the government-funded work it represented, 'bordered on the perverse.'  It was an example, he wrote last month, of federal defense attorneys using an intentionally 'abusive' strategy intended 'exhaust as much of this court's time and resources as possible' and frustrate the legitimate exercise of the death penalty.

[The Chief Justice] called it, 'The zealous pursuit of what is difficult to view as anything but a political cause: to impede and sabotage the death penalty in Pennsylvania.' 

On Friday, the federal defenders responded with their own lengthy written blast, calling the former Philadelphia district attorney's accusations 'unwarranted" and "unfounded.' They also denied a 'suggestion' from Castille that using federal lawyers in state courts was a misuse of federal money.

Behind the unusual dispute is the fact that, although the death penalty is on the books, it is not used in Pennsylvania. There are 215 people on death row in the state, but no one has been involuntarily executed in about three decades. The last execution was in 1999, when torture-murderer Gary Heidnik voluntarily halted his appeals.

Long-running litigation in death-penalty cases has long angered prosecutors and some victims' relatives - particularly the spouses of police officers killed on duty - even as law enforcement officials concede there is a need for review. Most of the cases on appeal are more than a decade old, as Pennsylvania juries have become more reluctant to impose death in first-degree murder cases.

The federal defenders say they are merely doing what they are paid to do: provide the best representation possible. They cannot choose who deserves the best effort, said Leigh M. Skipper, the chief federal defender based in Philadelphia. 'We take the cases as we find them. We can't differentiate between 'good murderers' and 'bad murderers.' A lawyer has an ethical obligation.'

The lawyers also sharply rejected Castille's complaints that they nitpick to deliberately clog the court.

'As a lawyer who is appointed to represent someone, we don't have the luxury of saying, 'Well, it's close; we don't make this argument,' ' said David Rudovsky, president of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which oversees public defenders in state and federal courts. 'Frivolous claims are in the eye of the beholder,' he said."
What's perverse is the false allure of the death penalty as a path to justice. 

Chief Justice Castille is drunk on his own spiked-Koolaid. Perhaps he's forgetting the ethical obligation of lawyers to zealously represent their client, perhaps even save a human life, loathsome as that might seem.

1 comment:

  1. The excellent Sentencing Law and Policy blawg had this story last week.