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PUBLIC DEFENDER APPELLATE OFFICE PROPOSED

If you're facing a long prison term or even the death penalty for murder, a good way to stretch out your appeals and maybe get your conviction overturned is to claim you had inadequate legal representation, and state officials say more and more inmates are doing just that, clogging the appeal courts and costing the state a lot of money.

One solution is to spend $1 million a year to start a new, eight-attorney public defenders' appellate office, a court task force says.While the price tag may seem large, it is really a good buy, task force members told Utah legislators Wednesday. An adequate appeal right after the trial conviction of an inmate who is indigent - and most are - will stop a lot of repeat appeals later.

"It's really a question of fairness and competence," said Court of Appeals Justice Gregory Orme. Salt Lake County and most other counties adequately provide for an indigent criminal's first appeal - an appeal guaranteed by the Utah Constitution. But many counties put their public defender work out to bid, with the lowest bidding attorney getting the work.

Often, the low bidder is an inexperienced new attorney, looking for a lot of trial experience. Other times it is a less-than-stellar attorney who just needs the work. In any case, Orme and others say that a local legal defender may not have to appeal a case for two or three years. Along comes an important drug or murder case, and the public defender comes up way short in his appeal abilities.

In all felony appeals, the state is represented by the criminal appeals division of the Utah attorney general's office, "a top flight office," said Orme. "It isn't a fair fight" when inexperienced public defenders go up against that crowd, he added.

"Some (public defenders) don't even know how to properly file an appeal," said Orme. Such poor representation may not bother some. "After all, who cares, these people are just criminals after all."

But appellate judges - especially federal judges - look seriously at criminal appeals and if they feel the criminal hasn't been properly represented they could order stays in executions or new appeals or even new trials.

The Interim Judiciary Committee decided Wednesday to have its budget office review the $1 million cost of such a new public defenders appellate office.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, a practicing criminal attorney himself, said he's not so sure starting an eight-attorney appellate office is the best way to go. "Perhaps we should start a fund, with the state and counties paying into it, and contract out appellate work from that fund."