Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
When The Representation Was Faulty
On April 9, 2001, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial? People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” There you have it from a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice.
One of the most basic tenets of legal practice for Texas lawyers is that a lawyer must be competent in their representation of a client. The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct states that a “lawyer shall not accept or continue employment in a legal matter which the lawyer knows or should know is beyond the lawyer’s competence.” Further, the rules state “while representing a client, a lawyer shall not neglect a legal matter entrusted to the lawyer or frequently fail to carry out completely the obligations that the lawyer owes to a client or clients.” Think of competency as the lawyer possessing “the legal knowledge, skill, and training necessary for a lawyer” to adequately represent a client.
Unfortunately, some lawyers violate these ethical requirements to the detriment of their clients. This inadequate representation then leads to wrongful convictions. That’s why inadequate representation is one of the significant areas of focus for the Lazarus Law and Justice Project (“LLJP”).
Lawyers need not achieve perfection or guarantee favorable results. However, when their representation does not meet even the most fundamental competency requirements, that’s a problem. When this happens, a client can be sent to prison for years, even put to death. In fact, studies have shown that ineffective assistance of counsel is the leading cause of wrongful convictions leading to the death penalty.
Consider the death penalty case of Kevin Wiggins, a black man from Maryland. He was sent to death row after a jury convicted him of murder. An appeals court overturned Mr. Wiggins’ conviction because his lawyer made several serious errors. The errors included failure to thoroughly investigate Mr. Wiggins history of mental illness and sexual abuse as well as failure to hire an expert or offer mitigating evidence at sentencing, which is routine in death penalty cases. Mr. Wiggins almost lost his life because of errors committed by his lawyer.
No lawyer is perfect, and all lawyers make mistakes. Practicing law is just what it says, practicing law. Again, no lawyer is expected to achieve perfection, and to err is human. However, many mistakes can be avoided through thorough preparation and caring for the client. There’s no excuse for shoddy lawyer work because of a lack care and concern for the well-being of the client. For example, such acts as lawyers falling asleep during trial, appearing in court drunk, sleeping with clients, and such things are inexcusable.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant “the right…to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Courts have ruled that this critical right includes the right to adequate representation. Guilty verdicts of innocent people that occur when a lawyer so badly represented a client justifies, even demands, that courts overturn the conviction.
Examples of Inadequate Representation
There are several instances where a lawyer’s failure to do certain things in the case can lead to adequate representation. These include:
• Failure to investigate the case properly
• Failure to contact and question witnesses
• Failure to communicate with the client properly
• Failure to make key objections before and during trial
• Failure to perform critical duties required under the law
These are just a few examples of neglect that can fundamentally lead to wrongful convictions of innocent people. At LLJP, our goal is to find errors in representation that may have led to the conviction, incarceration, and death of innocent people.