- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

RICHMOND Beginning tomorrow, the state Supreme Court becomes involved in setting standards for lawyers qualified to represent people facing the ultimate legal trouble: the death penalty.
Lawyers appointed to represent indigent Virginia clients receive the lowest compensation in the nation, and the change in the law represents a step by the state to compile a better list of attorneys with the skills and training necessary to defend people accused of capital crimes.
Under present law, the Public Defender Commission alone develops the standards and compiles the list for death-penalty defense lawyers, and they apply only when a defendant can't afford his own attorney.
With the new year, the state Supreme Court will have a say. Along with the Public Defender Commission, it will set standards for the defense attorneys in all death-penalty cases and maintain a list of lawyers who can handle life-or-death cases.
Overton P. Pollard, executive director of the commission, said the group supports the change and looks forward to helping the high court develop the standards.
"With the [state] Supreme Court leading the way, the standards are strengthened because the Supreme Court is the supervising agency of the whole court system," he said.
The legislature passed the reforms last spring after sophisticated new tests on DNA evidence cleared a mentally retarded man, Earl Washington Jr., days before his scheduled execution for the rape and murder of a woman in 1982.
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, said the change will help.
"Setting standards for these attorneys is a good idea, but as long as they are as poorly paid as they are, there will always be a problem with adequate representation," Mr. Willis said.
Among the 38 states with the death penalty, Virginia ranks second in the number of executions during the past 25 years. Virginia has put 83 killers to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, compared with 255 executions in Texas.
Virginia death-penalty convictions are also the least likely in the nation to be reversed on appeal, according to a study last year by the Columbia University Law School.
"Because of the terrible crimes these people are accused of, they should have the very best attorneys, but it appears that what they are getting is less than mediocre," Mr. Willis said. "That's not always the case, of course, because there are many highly qualified attorneys representing capital defendants."
Mr. Willis said the ACLU recently examined the experience levels and disciplinary records of Virginia criminal-defense lawyers. The lawyers who end up being appointed by the state to represent people in capital cases had a much worse record of being disciplined by the state bar than attorneys on average, he said.

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