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Capitol Offenses

A Supreme Court ruling both reveals and obscures flaws in the system

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You might have missed it, but a few days ago, a Pennsylvania case before the U.S. Supreme Court established a radical principle: that defense attorneys should actually look at the evidence prosecutors use to execute a defendant.

 

 

That might not sound extreme to you. But in death-penalty cases, fairness is often a radical notion. That may be why the Supreme Court split 5-4 on the decision to grant Ronald Rompilla a retrial for a 1988 murder.

 

Rompilla, who had a long criminal history including a brutal rape and assault, stabbed 61-year-old Allentown tavern owner James Scanlon to death and then set him on fire. Obviously, Rompilla is a sick individual. Just how sick the jury was never told.

 

Prosecutors sought the death penalty, and to get it, they told the jury details of Rompilla's rape conviction, much of which portrayed him as a monster. Rompilla's attorneys, both from the Lehigh County public defender's office, never read the file from that previous offense.

 

If they had, they might have noticed ample evidence that Rompilla had been abused inside and outside the womb. As a lower-court judge summarized, the record showed that when Rompilla was growing up, his father "frequently beat Rompilla's mother, leaving her bruised and black-eyed." The kids were beaten as well -- with belts, sticks and fists -- and locked "in a small wire mesh dog pen that was filthy and excrement-filled." Rompilla grew up in a house with no heat or indoor plumbing, and was "not allowed to visit other children or to speak to anyone on the phone." Medical exams later revealed Rompilla had suffered brain damage, possibly as a result of fetal-alcohol syndrome.

 

At this point, death-penalty backers usually begin arguing that lots of people got beaten and and locked up in excrement-filled cages when they were kids. It didn't turn them into murderers, did it?

 

You can't really argue with that kind of logic. But jurors should have a chance to think it over...and they can't do so unless they know about the abuse. As Supreme Court Justice David Souter put it in his majority opinion, because prosecutors were "going to use the dramatic facts of a similar prior offense" to get a death sentence, Rompilla's lawyers should have made "all reasonable efforts to learn what they could about the offense" themselves.

 

Why didn't they? Among other things, they weren't very experienced and their client wouldn't talk, partly because his attorneys "bored" him; apparently, he really is that crazy. And there was only so much the lawyers could do: As the court record notes, the Lehigh County public defender's office had only two investigators to handled 2,000 active cases at the time.

 

That's hardly surprising: While more than half of U.S. states provide either all or most of the funding needed for public defenders, Pennsylvania provides none. It's one of only two states where it's up to the county alone to provide legal aid to the poor. As a result, argues the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, "the quality of representation provided to indigent defendants varies widely" here. Public defenders are often outgunned by better-funded district attorneys, and "states such as Pennsylvania fail to ensure the quality of indigent defense."

 

Unfortunately, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in a dissenting opinion, the Rompilla decision might make things worse. If public defenders start focusing exclusively on documents that the prosecution uses, he says, the ruling could "result in less effective counsel by diverting limited defense resources from other important tasks." After all, Kennedy notes, the decision "will not increase the resources committed to capital defense."

 

Naturally, it won't increase the resources to prevent capital crime, either. It won't, for example, help fund agencies that might have rescue tomorrow's death-penalty convict -- or tomorrow's death-penalty supporter -- from abusive parents today.

 

Don't count on Harrisburg to do much either. If anything, state politicians are expecting counties to bear even heavier burdens. Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed Medicaid cuts that may well shift even more financial burdens to the county agencies. Meanwhile, state Republicans want tax breaks for long-suffering cell-phone companies.

 

Rompilla will get either a new sentencing hearing or life in prison. Despite his monstrous acts, he's one guy the system will have to do right by -- now. But there's no question that other, older crimes were committed here. They're being committed across the state every day. And those injustices often can't be reversed on appeal.

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