Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Is 'Adequate and Competent' Enough?

by Diane Fanning 

Down in Orlando, the Casey Anthony pre-trial hearings are stirring up serious legal questions concerning an indigent defendant’s right to qualified defense counsel. Unfortunately, up until now, this issue has been obscured by the circus-like atmosphere that has surrounded this case since Cindy Anthony called 9-1-1.

Many people are complaining that someone like Casey Anthony does not deserve for a single penny of taxpayer money to be spent paying her high priced attorneys. Part of the reason for this outcry is the long amount of time that has transpired since Caylee Anthony disappeared. When jury selection begins, it will be nearly 35 months since Caylee was last seen alive.

The other part of the objection is the apparent guilt of Casey Anthony. I’ll admit that I found the forensic data and the interviews with Casey to be compelling evidence of her involvement in the death of her daughter. Nonetheless, our judicial system is based on the presumption of innocence. Everyone is entitled to have the determination of guilt be made in a court of law. To strip people like Casey of that right is to imperil all of our civil liberties.

The third aspect of the response is an emotional one. On one side of the equation, we have a self-centered, selfish, spoiled young woman. On the other side, an adorable, innocent child, not quite three years old. Your heart must side with Caylee. To make matters worse, the accused murderer has been proven to be a liar, even by her own admission. She has been proven to be a thief by stealing from her own grandmother. She has been proven to care little for her own daughter, as shown by the 30 fun-filled days she spent before being forced to admit that Caylee was missing. It's hard not to despise Casey and nearly impossible to give her the benefit of the doubt. Yet, when it comes to the legal presumption of innocence, it is her right. And, it is in our best interests to ensure that right is not violated.

The issue is much larger and more important than Casey Anthony. It goes to the basic premise of equality under the law. Eighty per cent of the experts in the field of capital case law agree than there is bias in the administration of the death penalty based on social class. In other words, the more money you have to spend on your defense team, the less likely you are to receive the death penalty. That very concept thwarts our principle of equality under the law.

Take the case of Robert Durst. He decapitated his neighbor and claimed self-defense. He had millions at his disposal to buy the best defense team available. In the end, he walked away from the courtroom after the jury bought into the arguments of his attorney. Do you really think the outcome would have been the same if the story had involved a poor man who had no choice but to rely on the adequate and competent counsel of a court-appointed attorney? I certainly don't.

How can we uphold our principles that ensure justice is blind and we are all equal in the eyes of the law?

Ideally, every guilty person would honestly acknowledge their responsibility when charged with a crime, leaving only the decision of how much weight to give to mitigating circumstances when assessing a sentence. But it is not, and never will be, an ideal world. Someone who is willing to take another's life is not going to balk at lying to attempt to save his skin.

Casey Anthony is certainly a case in point. To date, her defense has cost approximately $300,000. Since she was ruled to be indigent in March of this year, the defense has received nearly $40,000 in taxpayer funding, although her legal team has requested far more than that.

Last week, Jose Baez and his team asked for more money for their private investigator (300 additional hours at $40 per hour). Judge Blevin Perry granted only one-fifth of that amount. Perry would not allow any travel expense reimbursement for the new death penalty expert. When the defense asked for $7,500 for a psychological expert, he only granted $2,500. The judge made his position clear: The law requires an adequate defense, not the best defense possible. "I'm not going to write an open check."

WKMG's Tony Pipitone summed up the day in the courtroom: "The law says indigent defendants are entitled to a defense that's competent. But they are not entitled to an O.J. defense unless they can pay for it themselves."

But is that right? Should people like O.J. Simpson be entitled to a better defense than you or I merely because they can afford it? Is that what justice is all about--the size of your wallet

Maybe it's time to think about trial financial reform. The scales should be balanced. Nonetheless, it is unreasonable to expect the taxpayers to shoulder the additional burden of the best defense for the indigent. Maybe we should consider restricting the expenditures of wealthy defendants.

I don't know if that's the answer or if it is even a possibility, but equality under the law requires consideration for all solutions that might lead to the elimination of bias in the courtroom.

Diane Fanning is the author of Mommy's Little Girl: Casey Anthony and Her Daughter Caylee's Tragic FateWhen the Casey Anthony trial begins next year, you'll find daily updates of the case on Diane Fanning's blog, Writing is a Crime.


Anonymous said...


Just one correction. "When jury selection begins, it will be nearly 23 months since Caylee was last seen alive."

23 months would be bad, but 35 is even worse! It's ridiculous how long this has dragged on!

Anonymous said...

While Judge Perry did indeed grant less than what the defense asked for, they have the ability to return and ask for more money. Ms. Finnell said she could do with $2500 for the pre-trial psychological investigation, and Judge Perry said that he would grant more for in-trial costs.

Casey is not being penalized. Judge Perry is making sure the funds are spent wisely, which I appreciate. Baez blew through over $300,000, and has little or nothing to show for it. Somebody has to teach him to be financially responsible.

Diane Fanning said...

Anonymous, you are correct about the time. I will fix my blog. It's difficult to believe it is that long. Math, obviously, wasn't on my mind.
To the other Anonymous: I do not disagree with what you are saying. I do think that the judge needs to be prudent with the expenditure of taxpayers' money but I also think that there is a systemic bias in our judicial system created by a defendant's financial ability in general.

Anonymous said...

You may want to report on a truly indigent defendant rather than someone whose attorney somehow blew through $345,000 first with nothing to show for it. Or, perhaps this story should be about the defense dragging everyone one and their brother in to get a piece of the State pie and then leaving. Or even why this defense team has really done nothing since the beginning when there WAS money available to them before indigence.

Diane Fanning said...

I understand your outrage at the Casey anthony defense team. My point is that although my feel that rage, we need to remember that whatever happens to Casey, that or worse will happen to the "truly indigent defendant." My argument is NOT that Casey isn't getting a fair shake. It IS that there is bias in the system and I used her high-profile case to bring some attention to the core issue.

Anonymous said...

By the tine the trial starts Caylee will have been deceased almost as long as she was alive. This case should never have taken so long to go to trial. Justice should not be gauged on how much an attorney can milk the system. A truly indigent defendant would have a qualified death penalty qualified attorney, a Public Defender. Not a non qualified lead attorney who has been more interested in media appearances the first 2 years his client was incarcerated and a trail of glory seeking pro bono attorney's with a swinging door attached to their behinds.

Diane Fanning said...

Some "truly indigent defendants" do not get a death penalty qualified attorney. Many states do not have a public defender system. There was a death penalty case here in Texas where the lawyer was so disinterested in his client's fate that he slept through part of the trial and the judge did not seem to think it was a problem.
I *used* Casey Anthony not because I thought she was an example of a mistreated indigent defendant but because I thought the public attention on her case offered the opportunity for all of us to consider what happens to those who are "truly indigent"--some of whom are wrongly charged with crimes and sometimes wrongfully convicted.

Anonymous said...

If a state does not have a public defender system who represents an indigent defendant? Are you referring to the Calvin J. Burdine's 1984 trial....if so, your readers might want to read up on the case...as there is more to it than your statement.

Diane Fanning said...

In states without a public defender's office, the court appoints an attorney from the pool of attorneys. I've known those who faced murder charges who have been assigned an attorney who never defended anyone for homicide.

California Girl said...

Durst is thought to be linked to two other murders. If he were ever tried for them, I am sure he would get off once again. There will be more uproar and drama about the Anthony case before its over. If she is indigent, she needs to follow the rules and not expect her attorneys to be paid for by the state.

Anonymous said...

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppose.”

marybowman said...

This is the problem that I have with Casey Anthony being declared indigent. Her family got close to two hundred thousand dollars for various interviews with the networks. Where did that money go?

Diane Fanning said...

I don't know Mary Bowman. We know they spent some of it. But since Casey is not a minor, her parents are not legally responsible for any of her expenses.

Anonymous said...

I think if you are going to mention the character of the mother you should also mention the character of the grandmother before you conclude anything about sweet angelic victims.
It appears the GrandMother dissuaded her daughter from obtaining an abortion and promised to raise the child. The Grand Mother reneged on the promise and the daughter therefore was stuck with wet diapers when she wanted to go to night clubs.
Perhaps the mother did not know she could give the child up for adoption, perhaps the mother did not want to risk any potential inheritance by giving away the kid, I don't know.
I just think that if you analyze the character of the two adults you should not arrive at "sweet, angelic" for the three year old.

Diane Fanning said...

I talked to people who were not family members but who knew Caylee. They found her to be a very sweet child.
The mother had an offer to adopt the child and turned it down.
I have never met a murdered 2-3 year old who was not an innocent victim.

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