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Rich and Poor Capital Case Defendants

Unlike the Peterson trial, death penalty defendants generally don't have a team of high-powered, high profile attorneys to argue for their life.
 
 
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Most poor death penalty defendants can only dream of the type of treatment Scott Peterson got. Even if the jury that convicted him of murder decides that he doesn't deserve the death penalty, he still has several things going for him that most convicted murderers, especially if they are poor and minority convicted murderers, don't have. He got a jury that was willing to listen to the long parade of character witnesses paint him as a stand-up guy you'd be thrilled to traipse off to the woods or a lake to go hunting or fishing with, or to a golf course to whack a few balls around with. His brutal murder of his wife didn't change their willingess to give him a hearing.

Though capital case jurors are legally bound to wait for instructions from the judge on options other than the death penalty, to deliberate fairly and honestly, and that means considering the mitigating circumstances that could save the convicted murderer's life, in reality, when they convict a capital defendant, they often don't consider any mitigating circumstances. If the conviction carried the death sentence, the jurors that convicted are almost never reluctant to vote it. An ongoing study by Northwestern University's Capital Jury Project found that half of the capital case jurors interviewed in the study had made up their minds that the convicted deserved to die long before the penalty phase of the deliberations began. They didn't take days to reach their decision either as they did in Peterson's trial. Most were convinced that the defendant was a scumbag. They feared too that if the killer got life in prison, there was always the possibility that he'd skip away scot-free some day.

Death penalty defendants also generally don't have a team of high powered, high profile attorneys to argue for their life. Their court-appointed attorney's often don't have the expertise to present any extenuating circumstances to the jurors that might help save them. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall publicly expressed shock to discover that federal reports bulged with pitiful examples of the shoddy legal representation convicted capital defendants got. In a study, the National Law Journal checked the professional records of more than a thousand attorneys that handled nearly 100 death penalty cases in six states from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s and found that the attorneys who handled capital cases were much more likely to have been disbarred, suspended or disciplined than attorneys who didn't handle capital cases. Many attorneys reason that the county paid for a no-frills defense and that's exactly what a poor defendant should get.

There are about 20,000 or so homicides committed yearly in America. Yet only a couple hundred of the men and women that murder ever receive the death penalty. They are the unlucky few that are represented by one of the legions of incompetent attorneys.

The shameful legal representation many poor capital case defendants get has resulted in embarrassing legal foul-ups. According to the Innocence Project, more than 150 defendants, mostly black or Latino men, have been wrongly convicted of murder and rape, and freed. The men spent years languishing on death row.

Peterson proved the exception to the no-mercy rule from capital case juries for yet another reason. Since the O.J. Simpson trial, celebrity trials, or cases in which either the murder victim is a middle-class child or wife, has turned the slow drift of much of the mainstream media toward tabloid sleaze sensationalism into a headlong stampede. Peterson was white, middle-class, and had photogenic, matinee idol looks, and his victim was his pregnant middle-class wife. That insured that the case would get top tabloid billing.

The jurors that tried and convicted him watch TV, read the papers, and that includes the gossip rags. To many of them, high profile celebrity defendants, no matter whether they are movie stars or athletes, are special cases. This is not to say that the jurors that convict them will give them, or deserve to give them, more pity than any other defendant but it can influence their deliberations. Prospective jurors polled in the aborted Kobe Bryant case were badly split down the middle. Before any court arguments were made they had made up their minds on Bryant's guilt or innocence.

The Peterson case again blinded the public to the gaping disparity in the treatment of rich and poor capital case defendants. It fueled the public fear that attorneys mangle the system and their guilty clients either go free, or in the case of Peterson they can evade a date with the executioner, or make a convincing enough public case why they should.

Whether Peterson escapes death row or not, he has one more card to play. He will appeal. The appeal could take years to wind through the courts. While there's no guarantee that he'll ever get the verdict tossed out, he still had the chance. That's the chance most poor death penalty defendants won't have.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a featured columnist for AlterNet, Blacknews.com and African American newspapers nationally. He is the publisher of The Hutchinson Report Newsletter, an online public issues newsletter.