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Federal court aims to improve help for indigent defendants

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — Alabama's largest federal court district is proposing a new way of appointing lawyers for indigent defendants to improve the help they receive in court.

The plan calls for 75 lawyers to be selected by court officials through an application process to serve as attorneys for defendants facing criminal action in the Northern District of Alabama, which includes 31 counties.

The program begins July 1. Its goal is to make sure people who cannot afford to hire lawyers will receive the best possible representation in federal criminal cases, which are becoming increasingly complex, said John Lentine, a Birmingham defense lawyer who is helping lead the overhaul.

U.S. Magistrate T. Michael Putnam said about 90 percent of defendants in criminal cases filed in the district have court-appointed attorneys.

"Experience is going to be a larger issue now," Lentine told The Birmingham News in a story Sunday. "The system works better when you have experienced lawyers."

As many as 300 lawyers with various degrees of experience are on an outdated list of lawyers known as the Criminal Justice Act panel. Magistrate judges use the list to choose lawyers, who are paid $92 an hour to represent indigent defendants.

There are no minimum requirements to be on the list other than to be a licensed lawyer in good standing with the bar and sworn in as a member of the federal Northern District.

The selected lawyers now will be divided into two tiers — one of seasoned lawyers with federal and state court trial experience and another with lawyers who are less experienced. Those lawyers will be mentored by the more skilled ones.

Case assignments will be made at random, except in special circumstances.

Lentine said the new plan is one of the most comprehensive in the country's 94 federal court districts.

Under the new plan, lawyers will serve for renewable three-year terms and will have to undergo continuing education courses specifically for federal court.

Federal charges often involve crimes that stretch across state lines, and sentences often carry mandatory minimum prison terms.

In federal court, the Speedy Trial Act requires cases typically come to trial more quickly than in state court.

"What we're trying to accomplish in any kind of criminal trial is making sure there has been a correct and fair determination of the facts in the case," Putnam said. "That can only be accomplished if competent, diligent lawyers are working on both sides of the case."

Lentine said court officials will also make an effort to fill the panel with a diverse cross-section of lawyers.

Court officials are encouraging lawyers to apply for the panel through the northern district's Web site by May 1.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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