Long time “Law and Order” state Mississippi maintains its time-honored tradition of denying its people’s rights. On its own, that’s an admittedly vague introduction. Which right? To life? To elect judges rather than have them appointed? This time it’s the federal Constitution’s right to an attorney in criminal trials. As it turns out, they’ve been skirting Gideon for a couple of decades now. From the much-appreciated ProPublica:
Public defense systems across the country are overburdened and underfunded, but Mississippi stands out. Nationally, it ranks last in how much money it spends per capita on public defense, according to the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit that advocates for a robust defense for the indigent — those who can’t afford their own lawyer.
Mississippi has long failed to monitor or evaluate local courts to see whether they’re delivering that defense…The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, ProPublica and The Marshall Project have identified courts that aren’t following the state Supreme Court’s rules on public defense, including judges who fail to appoint lawyers as early as required, or who deny counsel to defendants for inappropriate reasons.
It was bad enough knowing that the “Lawyer Dog” fiasco was a Louisiana one-off. But to know that Mississippi, with its particular relationship of race and punishment, has made a habit of failing to appoint lawyers in a timely manner or denying them outright, is a tragedy. When someone is put on a case, it’s not a guarantee that the legal representation they receive will be meaningful — and that goes back decades:
“There is not much lawyering going on. I get them through the system and get them out of here,” an unidentified, part-time public defender bluntly told consultants for the Mississippi Bar Association as part of a state government effort to reform the public defense system in the 1990s.
Coupling the lack of adequate legal representation in court with a police department that has a history of racial profiling:
It makes you wonder about the validity of crime statistics that come from areas where poor defendants are likely to have faulty representation. And survey says that’s most places. I don’t know the exact number of criminal statistics used to make policy decisions that are based on a plea bargain system — one where poor people with shoddy legal representation are forced to gamble between a plea deal and going to court with an overworked public defender if they’re lucky — but for a problem of this magnitude, anything above zero is a problem for our union. Even when a defendant escapes a guilty verdict, their consequences of getting caught up are heavy:
In a 2003 study, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reported that a lawyer on the Gulf Coast said that he never tried to locate or interview witnesses because by the time he’s been appointed, nine months to a year have typically passed since the crime.
That study highlighted the case of a man arrested in the northeast Mississippi city of Tupelo for possession of crack cocaine. The court appointed three different lawyers in succession. The first two never spoke with the defendant and did not respond to his phone calls or letters. On the day before the trial, the third lawyer told the court that he had not prepared for his client’s case. The evidence against the man was so weak that he was acquitted by a jury after less than 15 minutes of deliberation. He’d spent eight months in jail.
Government transparency and accountability really aren’t the high expectations they’re made out to be. There’s no excuse for most of Mississippi not having an active plan for indigent defense. They’ve should have had the memo since Gideon. Your state should too.
Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and by tweet at @WritesForRent.