With Defense Attorneys Like These, Who Needs Prosecutors?

Bayou City, Space City, H-Town—Houston’s collected some snappy monikers. But there’s one nickname the city is trying to shake: death penalty capital of the world.

Unfortunately, Houston’s reputation is deserved.

Most of America no longer executes people. But in places that still do, facing a capital case doesn’t always mean a death sentence. Defense attorneys and prosecutors duke it out in court. Some clients are acquitted. Some are sentenced to life imprisonment. Others are sentenced to death.

Not so in Harris County.

Here, every poor person facing a death sentence at trial is sentenced to death. And, too often, defense attorneys are a mere speedbump along the way.

You’ve likely read about Harris County defense lawyers taking too many cases, missing filing deadlines, or falling asleep at trial, while accepting hundreds of thousands (or more) in taxpayer dollars. Many of those problems extend to Harris County death penalty defense lawyers.

And it’s not just a few bad apples.

The Wren Collective recently reviewed 20 years of Harris County death penalty cases. Their findings, detailed in two reports, are disturbing. Private court-appointed lawyers rarely visited their clients. Some waited until the eve of trial to prepare a defense. Others readied key witnesses just minutes before they testified. Perhaps most shocking: in every case the Wren Collective looked at, private court-appointed lawyers failed to present potentially life-saving evidence.

Compounding these problems, we’ve saddled Harris County judges with overseeing defense attorneys. Judges aren’t meant to manage defense attorneys or prosecutors. But in Harris County, they appoint defense lawyers, approve funding for defense experts and investigators, and even decide how much lawyers get paid. Imagine an umpire who selects one of the teams, chooses their lineup, and sets their salaries, all in addition to calling balls and strikes.

Harris County death penalty representation is lousy, but it’s fixable. In fact, we don’t have to look outside Texas for a solution.

I served for five years as Executive Director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, the state entity that oversees public defense. In that role, I had the privilege of serving on the board of the Regional Public Defender’s Office for Capital Cases (RPDO), which provides death penalty representation in 186 Texas counties.

At RPDO, zealous representation is the rule, not the exception. RPDO appoints a four-person team to each client: a lead attorney, a second chair attorney, an investigator, and a mitigation specialist. Every team member specializes in capital defense and undergoes rigorous training and supervision. And each employee is salaried, so costs are both reasonable and predictable. RPDO wins some cases and loses others, but we can be confident that people aren’t being executed just because their lawyer didn’t put in the work.

Public defender offices like RPDO consistently outperform private court-appointed lawyers. They’re better for clients, lawyers, judges, and taxpayers. That’s why Texas is building public defender offices at a faster clip than any other state in the nation.

In 2024, we should build the Harris County Capital Defender Office.

Like RPDO, the Harris County Capital Defender Office would promote effective representation. It would ensure that lawyers do those basic things—investigation, research, motion practice, client visitation—that every attorney should do. It would guarantee fair use of taxpayer dollars. It would relieve judges of their awkward and ethically dubious role of managing death penalty defense. Most importantly, the office would guarantee that everyone facing the death penalty gets a fair shake.

Before we take someone from their family, friends, and community—before we take someone’s life—we’d better make sure that we get it right. We can’t say that for many of the men sitting on Texas’s death row today. It’s up to us to change that. Let’s build the Harris County Capital Defender Office and give people a fighting chance.