Indigent Defendants: Victims of Michigan’s Failing Public Defense System
National research has revealed that Michigan public defenders cannot fill the duties imposed by the Sixth Amendment that are owed to defendant’s who cannot afford an attorney, due to the lack of resources, skills, and necessary tools. The American Bar Association has identified required principles that the public defense system must meet to conform with the requirements of the Sixth Amendment. Recent reports show that Michigan is failing on many, if not all of these principles.
A report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Campaign for Justice reveals 13 stories of Michigan residents who were wrongfully convicted a fell victim to Michigan’s failing public defense system. For example, Edward George Carter, was convicted of armed rape and robbery after a bench trial that that lasted no more than a few hours. His attorney, a recent law school graduate, did not have the time or the funds to investigate the charges against him. The attorney did not have the resources to ask for or analyze fingerprints found at the scene or interview Mr. Carter’s alibi witnesses. Mr. Carter spent 35 years in prison before a fingerprint analysis revealed that he was not the perpetrator.
Mr. Carter’s story represents thousands of defendants who have been wrongfully served by Michigan’s public defense system. The system needs to be reformed to conform to the principles set out by the ABA and Sixth Amendment.
Some of these principles include a system: free of unnecessary political and judicial influence; funded by the state, not counties or municipalities; that provides defense attorneys with sufficient time to meet with their clients, ensure manageable workloads, and assign cases in such a manner that attorneys are not appointed to cases that they lack the ability or experience to handle; that ensures that a single attorney represents a client from arrest through disposition and sentencing.
Michigan is falling short on the Constitutional requirements and the ABA principle’s to provide effective assistance of counsel to indigent defendants. Michigan must work to strengthen its public defense system to provide indigent defendants with legal services that meet basic Constitutional requirements.