It's about time that Lucas County starts paying the lawyers who defend penniless people charged with capital crimes the money they deserve.
Besides having to be certified to represent people who could be sentenced to death, these attorneys, many in solo law practices, must give up other income-producing work to do a necessary but often thankless task.
In Lucas County, the pay is $50 an hour to a maximum of $25,000 for the two lawyers who must handle capital cases. Lawyers generally get upwards of $150, some as much as $350 an hour. Time is money, so the temptation to scrimp on time or evidence-gathering has to be monumental when money is scant, even among the committed.
It's important to have good lawyers negotiating and trying capital cases. Statistics show the quality of the lawyering is generally reflected in the final outcome.
We aren't talking here about sparing a murderer the ultimate penalty. In Illinois over the past few years, convicted murderers on Death Row found themselves exonerated thanks to the proper lawyering and investigations they didn't get in the first place. They didn't slide past the law. They were innocent.
It isn't as though death-penalty cases are frequent. Last year only one went through a full trial in Lucas County, which pays half the rate attorneys in Franklin and Montgomery counties earn in these cases. Even rural Paulding and Williams counties pay more than Lucas County does, a maximum of $40,000 per case.
Our system of justice holds that a person is innocent until he or she admits guilt or is convicted, after presentation of evidence, by a judge or a jury. Death Row is no place for an innocent, but many an innocent has landed there for lack of proper representation.
This is not work lawyers are lining up to take. Only 22 in Lucas County are certified to represent defendants in capital cases, and only four are certified to handle death-penalty appeals.
The county commissioners should raise the fees for these cases. Doing so won't break the bank or the budget. But it will put Lucas County closer to where it should be in guaranteeing justice to poor people accused in the most serious of crimes. Our Constitution promises them the same fair play that everyone else gets.
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