No matter what you think of the death penalty, we can all agree that capital cases are riveting. They're like a seven-car pileup on the highway; we just can't look away.
This past week, Ronnie Lee Gardner became the third person since 1976 to be executed by firing squad in this country. His case generated a worldwide media frenzy, intended to captivate us all.
And so it did. But by Friday, June 18, the morning after the execution, the fact of Gardner's death began receding from our collective consciousness. We are unlikely to consider it again, if ever, until the next execution-related media frenzy.
We pay much less attention to smaller, non-death cases or even to potential death cases that end in acquittals. How many of us even knew, for example, that another (formerly capital) Utah murder defendant, Wade Maughan, was fully acquitted last week?
The press covered every stage of Gardner's impending death. By contrast, they hardly addressed Maughan's acquittal, which was awarded despite a lengthy 2005 videotaped "confession" by the defendant. Missing almost completely was any discussion of the five years Maughan spent incarcerated (at taxpayers' expense) while awaiting trial.
If Maughan's acquittal could generate so little media attention, then what chance do non-capital, non-murder defendants have to garner our attention and concern — no matter their innocence? Especially if they are poor and caught in the morass that is Utah's constitutionally inadequate indigent criminal defense system?
As the Supreme Court recognized in the groundbreaking case Gideon v. Wainwright, there is perhaps no more important right in the Constitution than the right to counsel in criminal cases. Under our Constitution, it is the state's responsibility to ensure that the right to counsel for indigent defendants is carefully safeguarded. Innocent people must not be convicted of crimes they did not commit; defendants must receive the fair trials guaranteed by our Constitution; and the outcome of any trial should never depend on the wealth of the accused.
Yet Utah is one of only two states that provide no state funding for indigent criminal defense. The state also provides no statewide regulation or oversight. Instead, it shunts off to individual counties, some better-funded than others, the full responsibility of satisfying the state's constitutional obligations to indigent defendants.
The result? In some counties, caseloads are so high — twice the American Bar Association's recommended maximum — that public defenders may spend no more than 10-15 minutes with their clients before heading into court. This lack of time and resources forces public defenders to forgo preliminary hearings and motions. A disproportionately large percentage of defendants are encouraged by their public defenders to plead guilty — regardless of whether they have a viable defense.
These are stories we don't hear. And we may never hear them if the media, and we as a society, pay attention to our criminal justice system only when cases like Gardner's force us to.
It is our responsibility to care about the proper functioning of our legal system. We must care about the rights not just of the Gardners and the Maughans, but of those thousands of average Utahns who are charged with all manner of crimes, large and small, every year.
As a citizenry, we should demand that their stories be told and that their rights be realized. The state must be pressured to revamp its public defense system so that the average person's rights to a fair trial and effective representation by counsel are protected. Not because protecting these rights is sensational or headline-grabbing, but because our Constitution requires it.
Darcy Goddard is the legal director of the ACLU of Utah, which is a member organization of the Alternatives to the Death Penalty Coalition.