STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. The American legal system guarantees equal justice under law. Those words are carved in stone on the facade of the Supreme Court. It's a Constitutional promise, that everybody will have the same opportunity for justice. Now a major new report says the United States has failed to meet that promise for poor people accused of crimes. It is the most in-depth study in decades of defense for the indigent. And we have more this morning from NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO: In a hallway of a law firm here in downtown Washington there's a copy of a handwritten petition framed on the wall. It's two pages, side by side. At the top a stamp says: January 8, 1962, Office of the Clerk, Supreme Court. A signature at the bottom of the petition says, Clarence Earl Gideon.
Mr. ABE KRASH (Attorney): This eventually led to the opinion and decision by the Supreme Court in the Gideon case.
SHAPIRO: Abe Krash was an attorney on that case, one of the most important of the 20th century.
Mr. KRASH: Which held that every person in this country who is tried for a criminal charge is entitled to the assistance of a lawyer, regardless of his financial condition. If he's too poor to hire a lawyer, he's entitled to have one appointed for him by the government.
SHAPIRO: The Gideon decision helped establish the system of public defenders across the country. And yesterday Krash was back at his old law firm for the release of a report on the state of that system.
Judge TIM LEWIS (National Right to Counsel Committee): It does not paint a pretty picture.
SHAPIRO: Tim Lewis is a former federal judge. He co-chairs the Constitution Project's bipartisan National Right to Counsel Committee. The group spent five years studying indigent defense in every state. Tim Lewis said way too many states fail miserably.
Judge LEWIS: You should not have a better shot at justice, a better opportunity for an adequate defense, depending upon who arrests you in this country or where you were when you were arrested or what court system a defendant winds up in. This is a basic Constitutional right.
SHAPIRO: It's there in the Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (National Right to Counsel Committee): Someone must stand with the accused against the might of the state.
SHAPIRO: This is not a defense lawyer talking. It's Robert Johnson. He's a prosecutor and another co-chair of the committee that wrote this report. Johnson used to be head of the National District Attorneys Association.
Mr. JOHNSON: We're not there just to convict. Our job is to find justice. And I need a person standing with the defendant to help me do that, or I can't do that.
SHAPIRO: He said American courts rely on an adversarial system - prosecutors versus defense attorneys. For that system to work, the adversaries have to be evenly matched.
The report goes into detail about the wide range of ways public defender systems fail poor defendants. Sometimes people don't get lawyers at all. Other times they get a lawyer who's so overworked and underpaid that there's no way the accused can get a real defense. When that happens, the system ends up with people like Alan Crotzer.
Mr. ALAN CROTZER: I was poor and indigent. I didn't have no political connections, but I was (unintelligible) and because of that fault in me, I spent more than half of my life in prison.
SHAPIRO: He spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. DNA evidence eventually showed Crotzer was innocent. He's been out for three years, and he's part of the committee that helped produce this report.
The study includes a list of recommendations to fix public defender systems; for example, create an oversight commission in each state. These steps may not be cheap, and it's a hard time to convince states to spend money. But, Judge Lewis, said there's really no choice.
Judge LEWIS: Even in difficult economic times, how much is a Constitutional right worth? What price tag do we place on the right to vote, the right to be free from illegal searches and seizures? This is no different.
SHAPIRO: Now the authors of this report will try to make that case to officials at the Justice Department, in Congress, and in statehouses across the country.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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