Tuesday, July 09, 2002

This was the beginning of the Supreme's busy month. (reg. req.) It seems like an easy call.

Inmate Whose Lawyer Slept Gets New Trial

WASHINGTON, June 3 — The Supreme Court, acting in a case that has come to crystallize arguments over the adequacy of legal representation in death penalty cases, today let stand an appellate ruling that a Texas death row inmate is entitled to a new trial because his lawyer fell asleep repeatedly during his original trial.

The justices said nothing in rejecting the appeal filed by the Texas attorney general, John Cornyn, who argued that the appeals court decision had created an "arbitrary breach in the law" governing the effective assistance of counsel. The state's brief said the ruling, if allowed to stand, would invite myriad appeals by "imaginative" convicts trying to convert a lawyer's "impaired trial performance" into an automatic ticket for a new trial.

It is usually risky to interpret the Supreme Court's silence as a reflection on the merits of a case. But it was hard to avoid the sense that whatever danger the justices thought the appeals court's ruling might pose for the legal system, they had decided that it would be even more dangerous for the Supreme Court to suggest that for a lawyer to sleep through a trial was acceptable.

By simply turning down the Texas appeal, the court at least suggested that the sleeping lawyer's deficiency did meet the test for automatic reversal. In ruling for the client, Calvin J. Burdine, last August, the Fifth Circuit suggested as much: "Unconscious counsel equates to no counsel at all," the majority said.

Mr. Burdine, 48, was convicted of killing a 50-year-old man in 1983. His murder trial lasted six days. It is not clear how much of the proceedings his court-appointed lawyer missed. The appeals court called the portion "not insubstantial."

At a 1994 hearing before a Texas state court, which granted Mr. Burdine's petition for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered a new trial, three jurors and the court clerk from the original trial testified that his lawyer, Joe Cannon, dozed repeatedly. Mr. Cannon, who has died, denied dozing and said he had a habit of closing his eyes and tilting his head in order to concentrate.

Roe Wilson, chief of the appellate section of the Harris County, Tex., district attorney's office, said today that a new lawyer would be appointed for Mr. Burdine and that the new trial would take place as soon as possible. "It will be pretty easy for use to retry him," Ms. Wilson said. "He gave a confession."

THE ANTI-DINING NEW YORK TIMES gives us a excellent article on the day-to-day life of New York's condemned. (reg. req.)


The condemned men on New York's death row spend 23 hours every day in the 72-square-foot cells that face that corridor. They do not spend time together. They are fed their meals in their cells. Video cameras watch their every move, including when they use the toilet.

An hour of daily exercise takes place in an empty prison yard with no gym equipment. "I feel like a lab rat walking around in a circle," Stephen LaValle, a convicted murderer and rapist.

In the recent exchange of letters, Mr. Harris, who was convicted in 1998 of killing three people at a Brooklyn social club two years before, described a regimented schedule with little to fill the hours: Breakfast at 7:30, dinner at 4:30. In between there is exercise, television and lunch at noon.

Sometimes, he said, "I'll read a novel then take a nap." He often studies the Bible, he said. He watches "The West Wing" and "Dawson's Creek."

A small metal grid in the plexiglass allows inmates and visitors to hear each other. Mr. LaValle said his mother and sister cry when they visit. But the plexiglass, and the rules of death row, forbid them from touching.

"I can't hug my mom and tell her, `Mom, I love you,' " he said. "It's very frustrating." He was convicted of raping and stabbing more than 70 times a 32-year-old woman named Cynthia Quinn, of Medford, a mother of two.

When they exercise, two men are taken out at a time. Each is placed in a yard, surrounded by prison walls and barbed wire and divided by a wooden wall.

One man is placed on each side of the wall. Usually, Mr. LaValle said, he spends his hour walking in circles or doing some of the thousands of push-ups he does every day.

Back from NYC...

So much to catch up on...Let's start! Shall we?