Group calls for public defenders' office

HOUSTON A group which claims to represent the interests of minorities and the indigent says more needs to be done to keep innocent people from being improperly convicted.

They want any public defenders' office that is opened here in Harris County to be fair and ensure justice.

Elijah Merritt was represented by an appointed attorney once.

"The court appointed attorney I had to fire," he said.

Meritt says that attorney wanted him to plead guilty to 25 years for a burglary charge.

"He never tried to prove my innocence," said Merritt.

He hired his own attorney, took a ten year plea and served three. The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice says this is a perfect example of a system where judges appoint attorneys to those who can't afford them, and how doing so here is not fair.

"The criminal justice system in Harris County has a permanent stain from all the people that have gone to prison unjustly and been released," said Shelby Stewart of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.

They say appointed attorneys are so overburdened, some are working hundreds of felony cases annually, far more than the 150 recommended by the American Bar Association.

"Some attorneys in one year, we're talking 500, 600, 700 appointed cases in one year," said coalition attorney Randall Kallinen.

The coalition says Harris County's criminal justice system is mired in controversy, with questionable DNA testing that's led to repeated releases of wrongly convicted men. They say sloppy HPD property room accounting and excessive use of deadly force by officers also has lead to dubious convictions. Too many cases per attorney, they say, has led to too many attorneys not adequately working the cases.

"It is probably not possible to effectively represent that many indigent defendants," said Kallinen.

So they are calling now for the county to make sure that any public defenders' office that begins representing the county's indigent population accused of crimes here is created with a fully funded budget to adequately allow for defense investigation, and to be able to offer salaries that equal legal counterparts in the District Attorney's Office.

The county has applied for a state grant to help fund this public defenders' office -- $4.1 million of state money. They haven't yet heard if they will get it, but a search is on for the head of the public defenders' office.

Judge Ed Emmett's office says one will likely be hired in less than seven weeks. Beyond that, neither Judge Emmett nor Commissioner El Franco Lee, who has spearheaded this effort on the public defenders' office, would comment.

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