The Supreme Court delivered a victory Monday to a death row inmate who said his lawyer snoozed through much of his trial, a possible prelude to broader examination of the quality of legal help available to poor defendants facing the death penalty.
The high court refused a request from Texas authorities, who wanted the court to reinstate a murder conviction and death sentence against Calvin Jerold Burdine, who claimed that his court-appointed lawyer slept for up to 10 minutes at a time during crucial phases of the 1984 trial.
"The Supreme Court has served justice today by finding it unacceptable that an attorney should flagrantly nap during a trial in which a man's life is at stake," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Amnesty International's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The case now returns to Texas, where authorities must decide whether to retry Burdine or set him free. The state had argued that Burdine could not show his trial would have come out differently if his lawyer had stayed awake.
While not a ruling on the merits of Burdine's claim, the high court's action may be a sign that some justices remain attuned to longstanding complaints that overworked or underprepared lawyers are too often assigned to represent murder suspects too poor to hire a lawyer of their choice.
The Constitution guarantees the right to a lawyer, and the Supreme Court has previously said that means the right to an effective lawyer.
Away from court, two justices have discussed concerns about poor legal representation in death row cases. But those worries so far have not played out in the court's rule-making.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said last year that it may be time to require minimum standards for lawyers. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that among all the inmates who have asked the court for last-minute reprieves, she has never seen one who got really good legal help at trial.
"People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty," she said last year.
The court heard two cases this term in which death row inmates claimed they had bad lawyers. The court ruled against the inmates both times, most recently in a case last week involving a Tennessee man whose lawyer skipped a closing argument to the jury. Earlier, the court sided against a convicted killer whose lawyer had previously represented the victim in an another case.
Neither those cases nor the Burdine appeal squarely asked the question that seemed to trouble O'Connor and Ginsburg, however: What does being an effective lawyer mean when someone's life is in the balance?
Burdine's victory Monday is not necessarily encouraging for other defendants in the long term, said Stephen Bright, a death penalty opponent at the Southern Center for Human Rights.
"The constitutional rule that comes out of this term is that courts should have very strong coffee available to defense lawyers," Bright said.
"If the lawyer stays awake (this year's decisions) suggest that any lawyer is going to be good enough for this Supreme Court. Only in the most dramatic and outrageous cases, such as a lawyer sleeping through the trial, is there going to be any relief given."
Burdine was convicted of stabbing to death his gay lover, W.T. "Dub" Wise, at the Houston trailer they shared in 1983. Burdine confessed to police, but later recanted. He now claims an accomplice actually killed Wise, while Burdine tried to talk him out of it.
After the trial, the jury foreman and a court clerk described how court-appointed lawyer Joe Cannon slept for up to 10 minutes at a time during the trial and sentencing phase.
Cannon, who has since died, denied falling asleep.
Burdine lost several rounds of appeals and survived six execution dates before a federal court agreed that Cannon's performance violated Burdine's constitutional right to an effective lawyer. A federal appeals court panel first reversed that finding in a highly criticized ruling in 2000. The full appeals court then agreed to hear the case, and agreed with the first court that Burdine did not get a fair chance to defend himself.
The Supreme Court let that ruling stand.
The case is Cockrell v. Burdine, 01-495.
Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press