- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

State officials are creating a new team of public defenders in Northern Virginia to handle death-penalty cases to improve legal representation for poor defendants who face execution.

Leonard R. Piotrowski, former deputy public defender in Fredericksburg and a former New Mexico prosecutor, will run the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office, to be based in Prince William County. His staff will include three other lawyers, an investigator and an assistant.

The Northern Virginia office is one of four being created statewide under a 2002 law.

The first office opened in Richmond in September and the second in Norfolk in January. Once the Northern Virginia office is operating this summer, a fourth team will set up in the Roanoke area, the Virginia Public Defender Commission says.

Mr. Piotrowski, a defense attorney in two Virginia death-penalty cases, said lawyers at the four offices will have the time and resources to devote to complex capital cases and will be able to rely on each other’s expertise.

“I just want to create a system that will work to give these people the best possible defense,” he said.

Mr. Piotrowski will work with Deputy Capital Public Defender Paul Maslakowski, who has worked as a public defender in Fauquier County. He is bringing along Eugene Frost, an assistant attorney from the Fredericksburg public defender’s office, and Karin Kissiah, a lawyer specializing in capital sentencing.

In each case, a lawyer with the office will work with a local private attorney or a lawyer with the local public defender’s office.

The office’s first case, to which Mr. Maslakowski has been assigned in Fauquier County, involves a Warrenton man indicted on capital murder charges in the killing of a friend with a baker’s rolling pin. The man, George Steele, 34, also is accused of attacking the victim’s wife.

Richard C. Goemann, deputy director for the Virginia Public Defender Commission, said officials have been interviewing carefully to staff the offices.

“It requires a special kind of lawyer to dedicate themselves to doing this kind of work,” he said. “It’s very emotionally draining. It’s a huge amount of pressure, and it takes a certain kind of person to thrive on that. It’s intense.”

The offices open as a series of exonerations in death-penalty cases has drawn the attention of legislators and the public to the possibility of wrongful convictions, and as instances of bad lawyering have been highlighted in several high-profile capital cases.

From 1997 to 2001, 34 Virginia defendants were sentenced to death, the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission reports. During the same period, 53 defendants were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison, and 85 were indicted for capital murder but convicted of lesser offenses.

“If we’re going to have capital punishment, and I think we have to, we need to do everything humanly possible to make sure our system is as foolproof as possible,” said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, who heads the Courts of Justice Committee and sponsored legislation that established the offices.

Richard Dieter, head of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said it is important for attorneys in capital cases to have experience in death penalty cases. He said New York has a similar system, with some public defenders devoted solely to death-penalty cases.

“This is the key. The lack of this is why there have been so many mistakes — innocent people who were convicted or people who were guilty who simply didn’t have adequate representation,” he said.

“If you don’t do these cases right the first time, you frequently have to do them again,” he said.

In perhaps the best-known case of bad representation, the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear Texas’ request to reinstate the conviction of a death-row inmate whose attorney slept through parts of his trial.

Mr. Stolle said lawmakers reviewing Virginia cases found no such egregious conduct but decided something needed to be done to ensure that every defendant charged with capital murder gets a fair trial.

“We thought our system was doing pretty good but we thought we could improve it,” he said. “This is what we need to do to have an adequate defense. It’s prophylactic as opposed to reactive.”

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