Inquirer Editorial: Defendants deserve justice

The welcome decision by the Philadelphia courts to dramatically boost the fees paid to lawyers appointed to represent indigent defendants facing the death penalty strikes a long-overdue blow for justice.

As long as Pennsylvania maintains what Supreme Court Justice Harold Andrew Blackmun famously called "the machinery of death," the state cannot afford to scrimp on fairness.

Yet, for decades, the legal representation provided the poor in capital cases has been called into question by the courts themselves. Too often, in cases involving dozens of people on trial for their lives, capital convictions have been reversed or defendants granted new hearings due to inadequate counsel.

The worst offender has been Philadelphia, where more than half of 125 capital trials were reversed or remanded by appeals courts because serious mistakes by defense lawyers had deprived the accused of a fair trial.

The fees the city pays court-appointed death-penalty counsel are lower than in any other county. In fact, as part of a lawsuit filed last year that helped prompt court officials to act, the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation said Philadelphia's fees for court-appointed counsel were less "than any remotely comparable jurisdiction in the country."

Little wonder that the local pool of qualified defense lawyers willing to take on these assignments has dwindled.

To its credit, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court responded to the legal challenge over court-appointed counsel by tasking a city judge, Benjamin Lerner, to recommend reforms. Lerner last month concluded that fees were "grossly inadequate," which "unacceptably increases the risk of ineffective" counsel.

On Wednesday, the administrative judge of Common Pleas Court, John W. Herron, ordered a fourfold increase in the fees. The current $2,000 will rise to $10,000 for trial lawyers, while the fee to penalty-phase co-counsel will increase from $1,700 to $7,500.

The hope is that more reasonable fees will expand the pool of competent lawyers who seek certification to handle death-penalty cases. When defendants face trial, they should have better assurance that their defense has been prepared more thoroughly. That's particularly crucial in presenting evidence that might mitigate against a death sentence.

The Philadelphia Bar Association's leaders have rightly applauded the court's move on fees, but there's more to be done. More death penalty cases should be handled by the city's Defender Association, since studies show public defenders do the best job of keeping murder defendants off of death row.

An even better course would be for Pennsylvania to join neighboring New Jersey in scrapping capital punishment. This state hasn't executed anyone since 1999, but so long as there's a risk of an innocent person being sent to death row, there's a danger that an innocent person could be executed.