Public defense system has many deficiencies

The News missed an important factor in its excellent editorial regarding wrongful convictions. Public defense lawyers representing people who lack the money to hire counsel accused of a crime too often lack sufficient time and resources to adequately contest the prosecution’s case.

The News lumps defense error in with misconduct by police and prosecutors. But failing to investigate a client’s alibi, or to ferret out information useful to the defense – including information known to but withheld by the police or prosecutor – is more likely to stem from a systemic inability to do what needs to be done than from willful misconduct.

While lawyers should decline to take cases they don’t have the ability to handle, decades of neglect and underfunding of public defense services have made clear that New York State expects public defense lawyers to make do, not boycott the work.

Many wrongful convictions could be prevented if public defense providers had the staffing and resources to provide representation at lineups and otherwise challenge eyewitness identifications, thoroughly investigate informant testimony, hire experts to uncover faulty handling and outright falsification of forensic evidence, and reinvestigate the whole case to uncover information missed or hidden by law enforcement.

A lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union points out many deficiencies in New York State’s public defense system. The News should add settlement of this case in a way that fixes those deficiencies to its litany of ways to cut down on wrongful convictions.

Mardi Crawford

Staff Attorney

New York State Defenders Association