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Research shows racial disparity in death penalty cases

Scott Phillips researched racial disparities in death penalty cases and found that in Harris County, Texas, the district attorney was more likely to pursue the death penalty against black defendants. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Legal counsel is a matter of life and death in at least one Texas county, according to Scott Phillips, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver.

Phillips studied 504 death penalty cases in Harris County, Texas, which is home to Houston. He found that from 1992 to 1999 defendants—regardless of their socioeconomic status—who hire legal counsel were much less likely to receive the death penalty.

His research was published in October’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

“Defendants who hired counsel for the entire case were never sentenced to death and were much more likely to be acquitted,” Phillips says. “Even defendants who hired counsel for a portion of the case were less likely to be sentenced to death. Yet defendants who hired counsel appear to be just as poor as those who did not, suggesting that friends and relatives pooled resources in the hour of need.”

In Harris County, the alternative to hired counsel is court-appointed counsel, where a judge assigns a member of the private bar to the case. The county is the largest jurisdiction in the nation that uses the appointed system rather than the public defender method.

Phillips says Harris County should change to the public defender method in order to remedy flaws in the appointment system.

In his paper, Phillips describes how flat-fee compensation and the potential for insufficient support services are just a few of the problems with the appointment system. Because of flat fees, attorneys could limit the number of hours they work on a case to maximize profit. And judges must approve hiring support services, such as expert witnesses or investigators. Often, requests are not approved, Phillps says.

In the public defender system, Phillips says, a public defender’s office would be staffed by salaried government attorneys who are autonomous. Research shows that public defenders have a superior performance record in capital cases.

“This is not an indictment of appointed attorneys,” Phillips says. “The system is flawed, and because 252 of 254 counties in Texas use the appointment system, the research is relevant statewide.”


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