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News The best offense is a good defense



New program aims to provide better representation for the indigent

Four years ago, when the state legislature passed the Texas Fair Defense Act (Senate Bill 7), Houston Senator Rodney Ellis made the observation that "poor defendants get a poor defense" in Texas. It was an assessment that even many tough-on-crime Republicans found difficult to dispute.

As part of Bexar County's ongoing effort to improve the quality of representation for indigent defendants, the Commissioners Court recently approved the creation of a county Appellate Public Defender's Office. Supporters say it brings coherence to an appellate public-defense system plagued by personal favoritism and haphazard representation.

"Senate Bill 7 brought about some really good changes, where you were only appointed to cases for which you were qualified," says Angela Moore, chief appellate public defender for Bexar County. "But then what we saw was that an abundance of appeals were going to the same one or two people that the judges liked for some reason, or whatever, and some defendants were falling through the cracks. Cost-effectiveness was an issue, but my big concern was that due process be provided for these defendants."

Angela Moore runs the county's new Appellate Public Defender's Office. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

A fiscal 2002 review by the Bexar County Auditor found that of 116 cases paid by the auditor, 45 went to two attorneys. Because judges would appoint these favored attorneys without regard to their workload, some defendants would have to wait while their overloaded attorneys asked for time extensions. It was one of the problems the Commissioners Court attempted to solve by creating the county's appellate-defense program.

The Texas Fair Defense Act emerged in response to a study by the Spangenberg Group that harshly critiqued the manner in which Texas handled indigent criminal cases. Moore says Bexar County's success in implementing the reforms of the TFDA caused the Spangerberg Group, in a 2002 follow-up study, to rate the county second in the state in indigent defense.

By providing an office whose sole responsibility is appellate defense, county commissioners hoped to eliminate the need for judges to slog through attorneys' vouchers, which they previously had to do on a case-by-case basis, and to create a system of responsible representation for indigent defendants.

"This program is here to provide one cohesive unit that's accountable: accountable to the judges in that we have to show when things were filed, and accountable to the taxpayers in that the Commissioners Court has some oversight of our budget," Moore says.

According to Moore, Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed strongly opposes the new program. "She wanted it to be squashed at the commissioners court level," Moore says. "I don't know what her rationale is, because we can show that this type of system - which is the national trend - will not only provide better representation for the defendant, but will be more cost-effective for the county as well."

Reed did not respond to interview requests from the Current.

The Appellate Public Defender's Office received 80 percent of its funding from a grant of more than $300,000 by a task force on indigent defense, with the remaining 20 percent funded by the county. Moore hopes that by the end of the program's fourth year, it will be so efficient that it will be able to continue without the grant.

Certainly, the office's three attorneys (with a fourth to be hired in the near future) have experienced little idle time thus far. Only two weeks after opening its doors, the office is handling six appellate cases, including one involving the death penalty and another with a sentence of life imprisonment.

By Gilbert Garcia

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