1/3 of Death Penalty Attorneys Overworked: Study

One-third of Harris County attorneys approved to try death penalty cases are overworked and exceeded a national standard that recommended an annual limit of 150 felony clients, according to a newspaper investigation.

The Houston Chronicle's investigation found 220 days in which attorneys approved to represent clients facing life or death sentences appear to have accepted more than the limit of five assignments per day. Some took as many as 10 cases.

Ten of 32 Harris County lawyers approved by judges to represent clients facing life or death sentences regularly exceeded the limit of 150 felony clients annually, set up in 1973 and adopted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

The lawyers, each assigned anywhere from one to 10 capital cases, simultaneously juggled 160 to 360 other felony clients each year, according to an analysis of official district court appointments from 2004-2009.

"That's way too many cases and would not leave time for any other cases, particularly capital cases," said Stephen Bright. He is an expert in capital case representation who has taught at Yale and Harvard law schools and reviewed the newspaper's findings.

The newspaper said it also found at least 12 examples in which judges broke their own requirement that capital murder case appointments be spaced at least 60 days apart. A breakdown in an internal tracking system is also getting the blame.

Harris County District Court Clerk Loren Jackson said a tool could be built to track attorney appointments.

And two of the Harris County judges, Belinda Hill and Shawna Reagin, said it might help judges to receive reports on caseloads before making capital appointments, though both said numbers alone should not govern decisions.

One attorney -- Jerome Godinich -- has been chastised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this year for repeatedly failing to meet federal death penalty deadlines.

Godinich has represented an average of 360 felony clients per year in Harris County -- a caseload that surpasses every other similar attorney.

He defended his record in a letter to the newspaper.

One of his hundreds of Harris County clients, Phillip Hernandez, has been awaiting trial for 18 months on child sexual abuse charges. He says Godinich has never visited him in jail to discuss his innocence claim.

Hernandez's pre-trial hearing was scheduled earlier this month, but the inmate said he learned it had been postponed at the last minute from a bailiff. Godinich did not attend court that day, records show.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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