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Public Defender for Death Row Appeals

People sentenced to death in Texas will soon get better legal representation for their appeals. A Public Defender’s office has been created just for them, as Jim Bell reports.

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Texas law puts death sentences on automatic fast-track appeal to the State Court of Criminal Appeals, but appellants are still stuck with the lawyer they can afford, or one that’s appointed. The good, the bad and the indifferent. Houston State Senator Rodney Ellis says people who may have been innocent have been executed because they had a mediocre lawyer handling their appeal, and that’s an international embarrassment.

“34 of the 37 states with death penalty statutes use some sort of a public defender office to handle these cases. The states that don’t are Mississippi, Alabama, or Utah, Texas right now but that’s about to change.”

Ellis sponsored the bill that created a state public defender’s office that will oversee death row appeals to make sure appellants get good legal representation. The office will be empowered to replace appeals lawyers they don’t think are doing an adequate job, and Ellis says that’s the least society can do for people whose lives are hanging in the balance.

“Texas sends more people to death row than most nations in the world, and it’s appropriate and important that we do our best to get it right.”

The new Office of Capital Writs, as it’s called, will open next year with a one-million dollar a year budget, and at the current pace of capital trials in Texas, it’s expected to manage just under a dozen death penalty appeals a year. Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News.

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