Friday, November 09, 2007

A Poor Defense

From the Times:

On a hapless morning this summer, James Adams, a 44-year-old day laborer, found himself at the Rite-Aid drug store on Salina Street in Syracuse.

What happened then is in dispute. The police said he tried to steal, among other things, a container of Johnson & Johnson baby oil gel. Mr. Adams said they arrested the wrong man.

What happened later is not in dispute. For the 100 days since he was arrested on July 31, Mr. Adams has been in the Onondaga County jail. He cannot pay his $2,500 bail, and he faces at least three and a half years in prison if he is convicted.

Mr. Adams contends that his lawyer has been no help. He will not return Mr. Adams’s calls, failed to show up at one hearing and did not fight when prosecutors charged Mr. Adams with a felony, he said. Reached for comment, Donald E. Kelly, a lawyer appointed by the court to represent Mr. Adams, denied those charges and said he had provided a vigorous defense.

For years, New York State has been criticized for failing to comply with Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 decision by the United States Supreme Court that required states to provide meaningful legal representation to poor defendants.

Yesterday, in an effort to goad a new governor and a cautious State Legislature to abide by the decision, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against New York State in State Supreme Court in Albany.

The suit is on behalf of 20 indigent defendants who, the Civil Liberties Union claims, were effectively denied the right to counsel. The defendants include Mr. Adams.

The suit charges that inadequate funding, poor oversight and lack of statewide standards deny New Yorkers accused of crimes their right to competent representation at all stages of the judicial process.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union, told reporters yesterday, “Every day throughout the state, people accused of crimes are deprived of justice because they are poor.”

Gary Stein, a lawyer with Schulte Roth & Zabel, pro bono counsel in the suit, added, “No more studies, no more delay. It is time to act.”. . . . . . . . .

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