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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Today, we bring you the first of two stories about how budget woes are making it harder for poor people to get justice. Lawyers on all sides agree that the system - enshrined nearly 50 years ago - giving all defendants the right to a lawyer, is not working.

GREENE: In fact, the Department of Justice calls it a crisis. It's such a big problem that the Justice Department has been doling out grants, in a stopgap effort aimed at getting defense lawyers to perform better in criminal cases.

MONTAGNE: Michigan is Exhibit A in this legal aid meltdown. Five times since the 1980s, independent groups have called on Michigan to change the way it pays lawyers to represent the poor. Each time, the state has done nothing. Now, a lawsuit, and a growing number of exonerations, may be about to change that. NPR's Carrie Johnson has this report.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: On a sticky afternoon along Detroit's riverfront plaza, children jump through chutes of water, in a fountain. Nearby, Edward Carter sits on a park bench, and talks about his life behind bars.

EDWARD CARTER: I was 19 years old when I went in, and I got out on my 55th birthday.

JOHNSON: This scenic area isn't far from where a pregnant woman was assaulted in a university bathroom, in 1974. Edward Carter was convicted of that crime, after a trial that lasted only two days. He said he didn't do it. Thirty-five years later, he finally convinced authorities - with the help of fingerprint evidence, and a report that said Carter was already in custody on theft charges that day, October 24.

CARTER: That's the same day the crime happened. How do I be in two places at the same time? It's highly impossible for a person to be in two places at the same time.

JOHNSON: Back then, Carter's court-appointed lawyer was fresh out of law school. He says they met only twice before the trial. The lawyer encouraged him to take a plea deal, Carter says, then didn't do much of anything when he refused. While Carter's case may be extreme, incidents like this happen all too often in Michigan.

DAVID MORAN: The common thread in these cases was really terrible lawyering, at the trial level.

JOHNSON: That's David Moran. He runs the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan's law school. He's seen too many cases where convicted criminals turned out to be completely innocent - because, Moran says, of a patchwork system in the state, where each county can choose how it appoints and pays for lawyers for the poor.

MORAN: If you're handling 400 indigent cases a year, there is simply no way that you can adequately investigate and prepare all of them. In fact, there's no way you can adequately investigate or prepare any of them, if you have that many cases.

JOHNSON: In many counties here, judges choose from rosters of defense lawyers, who make a flat rate for each case they handle no matter how much work they do. In others, contracts are awarded to small groups of lawyers who offer the lowest bid - no kind of justice, says Mike Steinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union. His office, in midtown Detroit, is filled with photos of the Statue of Liberty.

MIKE STEINBERG: For a while I had a special attraction to the Statue of Liberty.

JOHNSON: Steinberg says he still believes in those ideals. So he sued the State of Michigan, arguing the way it provides lawyers for the poor amounts to assembly line justice.

STEINBERG: They have to encourage their clients to plead guilty, and keep the docket moving, in order to generate the volume; that they can make a living. So the incentive is to get your client to plead guilty as quickly as possible, doing the least amount of work as possible.

JOHNSON: Steinberg and the ACLU have an unlikely ally - State House Rep. Tom McMillin. Son of a retired General Motors executive, he's a Republican and a former leader of the Christian Coalition here.

STATE REP. TOM MCMILLIN: Conservatives are really talking about, what is the proper role of government; has it expanded too much? I, and I think many of us, feel that this is one of the proper roles - providing as much equal justice as possible.

JOHNSON: That issue captured the attention of Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, too. Last year, the governor named McMillin to a commission to study how to improve the patchwork system of justice for the poor. The group is planning to present its recommendations to the governor this month.

Jeff Sauter is eager to read them. Sauter testified before the commission last winter, on behalf of a group of prosecutors in Michigan. After 21 years as the elected prosecutor in Eaton County - near Lansing - Sauter has seen a lot.

JEFF SAUTER: I've seen instances - actually, both appointed and retained attorneys - where the defendant, I don't think, is getting good representation.

JOHNSON: Sauter says he and other prosecutors in Michigan are willing to concede, the defense system for poor people is broken.

SAUTER: I do look at the amount of money that the attorneys on the other side are getting paid to handle those cases, and I think it should be improved.

JOHNSON: But Sauter says it's not necessary to completely overhaul the system, something the governor's commission may be shying away from in favor of a middle ground - more study of the problem, and more money to flow to the counties.

Back at Hart Plaza, as couples stroll hand-in-hand along Detroit's waterfront, Edward Carter is feeling reflective. Both of his parents, and a girlfriend, died when he was locked up.

CARTER: And understanding all of that, that span of time, I said to myself - I said - well, they have taken a lot from me. I wasn't able to have children. They may have took a lot of things from me, you know, when I was 19 years old, when I went in. But I still got a good life ahead of me.

JOHNSON: These days, Carter's got a job - overnight shift - cleaning at Zingerman's Bakery in Ann Arbor. He showed me the discount card to prove it.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And in tomorrow's report, Carrie travels to Baltimore, to visit a legal emergency room for the poor that faces an uncertain future.

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