Monday, October 25, 2010


This is a court of law, not a court of justice. Oliver Wendel Holmes

Troubling questions over Georgia's controversial death penalty system will remain unresolved for now, after the Supreme Court declined Monday to review an appeal from a death-row inmate who received unwanted help from state prosecutors on his legal representation.

The justices without comment rejected Jamie Ryan Weis' request for relief. He says he sat in jail for years after the state ran out of money to pay for his lawyers. Weis said prosecutors then suggested that a judge appoint two public defenders, even offering the names of two overworked and inexperienced attorneys who did not want the job. Weis' current legal team calls that a blatant conflict of interest.

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We only have to read the Court's majority opinion in Powell v. Alabama to understand why the assistance of qualified counsel is essential in the criminal justice process.

The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel, he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence. If that be true of men of intelligence, how much more true is it of the ignorant and illiterate, or those of feeble intellect. If in any case, civil or criminal, a state or federal court were arbitrarily to refuse to hear a party by counsel, employed by and appearing for him, it reasonably may not be doubted that such a refusal would be a denial of a hearing, and, therefore, of due process in the constitutional sense.

No only is a person on trial for his or her life entitled to the assistance of counsel, but the prosecution should be barred from picking that counsel. 

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