Lack of lawyers slows death sentence appeals in California, causing backlog

The inability of the state to recruit lawyers for post-conviction challenges, or habeas corpus petitions, has caused a major bottleneck in the state’s criminal justice system. Nearly half of those condemned to die in California are awaiting appointment of counsel for these challenges.

This “critical shortage,” as the state high court describes it, has persisted for years, despite lawyer gluts. The average wait for these attorneys is 10 to 12 years.

Criminal defense lawyers attribute the scarcity to inadequate state funding, the emotional toll of representing a client facing execution and the likelihood that the California Supreme Court will uphold a capital conviction.

“There are myriad reasons why dozens of lawyers who used to do these cases decide they can’t afford it,” said UC Berkeley law professor Elisabeth Semel. “I am talking about not going broke because you are trying to do the right thing for your client.”

Prosecutors and death penalty supporters blame the culture of criminal defense work or, as Kent Scheidegger, legal director Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, put it, the zeal “to turn over every rock in the world.”

“The idea that you have to pull out every stop in every case is excessive,” said Scheidegger, whose group favors capital punishment. “There is a lot of pressure, but that doesn’t mean the state has to or should pay for it.”

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