By David K. Shipler
Will you get good lawyering if you can’t afford it? Maybe, depending on where you’ve been charged. The quality of your legal defense will be determined, like the value of real estate, by three factors: location, location, and location.
Fifty years today, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Gideon v. Wainwright that indigent defendants are denied their Sixth-Amendment guarantee of “the Assistance of Counsel” unless government provides them with lawyers. In practice, however, the effect of the ruling has been very spotty, creating a patchwork across the country. You’re better off in Washington, D.C., for example, than in parts of Texas and Georgia; anywhere in Alabama; and certain counties of New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. You’re usually more fortunate in federal than in state courts, and in local jurisdictions where indigent defense is funded by states rather than counties.
Ask Anthony Ray Hinton. He has been sitting on Alabama’s death row since 1986, when his court-appointed lawyer was given only $500 to hire a reputable firearms expert to dispute the questionable findings of a police lab. The “expert” he found on the cheap, a one-eyed retired engineer who couldn’t operate a comparison microscope, had jurors laughing in ridicule.