State should provide relief on death cases

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 4, 2000

Members of the state House Judiciary Committee passed a bill this week that would ease the financial burden of defending inmates accused of capital crimes. The move is long overdue.

Cases involving death sentences have the highest level of scrutiny and review of any case on appeal — and rightly so. Death cases are automatically appealed, and often the appeal is appealed and so on.

The state, in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that an innocent person would slip through the cracks and be executed, exhausts all resources to examine such cases.

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In 1998, the Supreme Court ordered counties to pay for the often lengthy, complex appeals of death cases.

The ruling sent many county officials crying foul. Defending cases involving the death penalty often involves two things that many smaller counties in Mississippi do not have — expert attorneys and lots of money.

The intricacies of defending death cases cannot be handled by any attorney. Asking an ordinary trial lawyer to handle a capital case expertly is equivalent to asking a general practitioner physician to perform neurosurgery.

And often the full appeals of these cases — through state and federal courts — can run up a bill of well over $200,000. One or two capital cases could wipe out a small county’s budget.

The House bill would provide teams of lawyers to handle capital cases from the local circuit court trial all the way through the appeals process.

Last week the Senate passed a bill that would create a three-attorney state office providing post-conviction relief for counties.

The House bill is probably the best way to go since it provides the proper, expert counsel throughout the process.

And that’s the minimum our state needs to provide when there’s a life on the line.