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April 8, 2001

TWO-TIER JUSTICE: Facing Life in Prison

Legal Help Often Fails New York's Poor


Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Juan Carlos Pichardo, in prison for six years in a murder case, was retried last June. A judge said his first court-appointed lawyer had shown "ignorance of basic principles of criminal law."


chart Lawyers for the Indigent in Homicide Cases

Readers' Opinions

Join a Discussion on Issues in Law Enforcement

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
The pens in Manhattan's Criminal Court building. Court-appointed lawyers often meet defendants there instead of at the jail on Rikers Island, though the jail offers more privacy.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Susan V. Tipograph, a lawyer who takes poor clients, spent 327 hours on one case, but few others put in so much time.

A murder defendant who cannot afford a lawyer can expect to have one appointed for him. That much is the law.

But in New York City, there is some basic legal work an indigent defendant cannot expect. Most lawyers appointed to represent the poor do not hire private investigators to look for witnesses or evidence. Most do not get expert witnesses, like psychiatrists or pathologists, to help challenge the prosecution's case. Most do not take the time to go to the scene of the crime. And most do not make a single visit to the jail on Rikers Island to discuss the case with their clients.

In fact, a defendant facing life in prison may get a lawyer who spends as little as 20 hours on the case half a week's work and is paid as little as $693, less than the cost of the average real estate closing.

Thirty-eight years after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that indigent defendants have a right to legal counsel, New York City offers representation to the poor that routinely falls short of even the minimum standards recommended by legal experts.

In a seven-month analysis of thousands of city records and court cases in 2000, The New York Times found that almost no part of the indigent defense system functions as it was intended.

From the felony courts to the misdemeanor mills and the parole- violation trailers on Rikers Island, defendants frequently get assembly-line representation from lawyers who may spend only a few minutes on each case.

For their part, the lawyers complain that they are overworked and underpaid in a system under pressure to produce a high volume of quick guilty pleas. The number of lawyers willing to take such cases has dropped sharply in recent years, and some who do sign up say privately that they are forced to cut corners.

More than most big cities, New York relies on private lawyers to represent the poor in homicide cases. It is a system more typical of rural, Southern states. In most big cities, that job is done by public defender's offices that pay their lawyers salaries.

In New York, private lawyers are assigned by the court from a pool of volunteers after they meet screening requirements to show they have some experience. They are paid $40 an hour for courtroom work and $25 an hour for work out of court, the second-lowest rate in the nation.

Alabama, Louisiana and West Virginia, which all have lower costs of living, pay higher rates. And Arkansas, at an average of $80 to $85 an hour, pays twice the New York rate.

Lawyers and legal experts in other parts of the country said New York's system of defending the poor was as troubled as those in states commonly thought to be much tougher on defendants, like Texas and Alabama.

Judith S. Kaye, New York State's chief judge, described the indigent defense system as "a seriously bleeding patient." She has been pushing for higher pay, but acknowledges that the problems go deeper.

"When you're bleeding, this is not a time to start talking about revamping the system," Judge Kaye said in an interview. "If the rates are made equitable, we can then begin to address the other problems."

The stakes are highest in homicide cases, which often end with a sentence of life in prison.

The Times analyzed all 137 New York City homicide cases completed by appointed lawyers in 2000. In 42 of the cases nearly one-third the lawyers did less than a week of preparation, raising questions about their effort and thoroughness. In only 12, lawyers spent at least 200 hours five weeks or more investigating and preparing their cases, a sign of appropriate diligence, according to legal experts who reviewed the data compiled by The Times.

The median for all cases was 72 hours, not quite two weeks' work.

"One can't help but be shocked at the number of homicide cases in which the lawyers are putting in a handful of hours in preparation," said Lawrence C. Marshall, the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law. Professor Marshall, who reviewed the homicide data for The Times, said preparation time should be well beyond 100 hours. His center has helped to exonerate several death row inmates in Illinois. "The cases we've won were won on the street," he said.

Death penalty cases, which are handled differently from others in New York, were not included in the study. Only one was completed in New York City last year.

The Times compiled data on homicide cases contained in hundreds of pages of detailed bills the lawyers must submit to the city to be paid. The bills indicate what the lawyers did and how much time they spent doing it. The city checks these documents for double-billing and other errors, but has never reviewed them to assess the quality of the legal work.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who plays a central role in shaping the indigent defense system, declined to be interviewed. His criminal justice coordinator, Steven M. Fishner, said Mr. Giuliani supports a pay raise, but thinks the system works well. It meets the needs of the poor "by constitutional standards and beyond," Mr. Fishner said. "It's doing a good job." He said it was not the city's responsibility to monitor the quality of work by appointed lawyers. That is the job of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, he said.

The Appellate Division has never reviewed the lawyers' bills, either. It screens the lawyers who want to represent the poor, but does not routinely review their performance.

Most of New York's court-appointed lawyers work alone. Some have secretaries, others do not, and a few work from home to save the expense of an office, a violation of a rule that is rarely enforced. For defendants, it is the luck of the draw. They must take whatever lawyers are assigned to them.

A Case Study

Defense Bungles

A Murder Trial

Juan Carlos Pichardo first met his appointed lawyer, Louis Grisorio, the day after he was arrested in March 1994 and charged with the murder of a drug dealer shot in East Harlem six weeks earlier. Mr. Pichardo, then 23, had no criminal record and knew little about the legal system. He had no money to hire a lawyer, so Mr. Grisorio was appointed.

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