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Court Passes On Death Row Legal Aid

The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider giving poor death row inmates more free legal help.

The court had been asked to force the government to pick up the tab for inmates' legal bills during clemency proceedings and some last-minute appeals. Defense attorneys argued that a 1998 federal law requires death row inmates' lawyers to continue representing them through "every" stage of appeals.

"Congress made clear that people sentenced to death should not be abandoned by their lawyer as an execution date nears," University of California, Berkeley, law professor Charles Weisselberg told the court, on behalf of lawyers in a fees dispute. "Clemency is a critical part of our criminal justice system, and is particularly vital when the state seeks to take a human life."

The Bush administration argued that it made no sense for the federal government to pay to assist inmates in state clemency hearings. The government does pay for some federal death row appeals.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued that states may not want federal courts getting into their business by appointing and paying for lawyers.

The cases the Supreme Court refused to hear involve lawyers who represented three Texas inmates who already have been put to death. Juan Soria, who was convicted of kidnapping and stabbing to death a 17-year-old standout swimmer, was executed in 2000. Jack Wade Clark was put to death in 2001 for the abduction, rape and fatal stabbing of a 23-year-old woman. Odell Barnes was executed in 2000 for the rape, beating, stabbing and shooting of a woman at her home.

Mental health groups had urged the court to take up the issue.

"Many death row inmates are poorly educated, retarded, or mentally ill, wholly unable to marshal the materials necessary to file their own clemency applications. They will be executed without clemency review," Weisselberg wrote in court papers.

In other decisions, the court:

  • handed another loss to New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Douglas Forrester, refusing to hear his challenge to a candidate switch by the Democrats that made his race much tougher. Forrester lost in the Nov. 5 election to Frank Lautenberg, a former senator whom Democrats recruited about a month before the election to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli, who resigned following an ethics scandal.
  • passed up a chance to review an alleged mob-related gambling case that tested a federal money laundering law.

    The justices refused, without comment, to consider whether a lower court was wrong to throw out the convictions of two Chicago-area men accused of making millions of dollars stocking suburban taverns and bowling alleys with illegal video poker machines.

  • refused to jump into another free-speech dispute, this time over advertising restrictions the state of Florida put on dentists who want to promote their specialties.