News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Fair indigent lawyers' pay serves public safety, justice

Many poor defendants in Alabama state courts would love to have the caliber of legal representation provided in federal court to serial bomber Eric Rudolph.

Mr. Rudolph is the man who bombed a Birmingham abortion clinic and the Olympic park in Atlanta, among other crimes. He killed two people and injured more than 110.

He avoided the death penalty in a plea bargain that will put him in prison for the rest of his life.

His defense team, paid by the federal government, included Judy Clarke, described as a "one-woman dream team" by a colleague. A former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, she had previously defended Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman who drowned her two boys; Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; and Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty last week in a terror plot connected to Sept. 11.

Three other lawyers were on Mr. Rudolph's team, including former Alabama criminal appeals judge Bill Bowen.

Mr. Rudolph got a better deal than he deserved, but one benefit of his plea bargain was that he revealed the locations of bombs buried in North Carolina that still might have killed or maimed somebody if not disabled.

Many Alabama inmates now on death row received minimal representation at the trial level and got much worse results, from their point of view, than Mr. Rudolph. That's because Alabama does not pay its indigent defense lawyers nearly as well as the federal government does, and there are many more capital cases in state courts than in federal courts.

Court-appointed attorneys for the indigent in Alabama recently lost reimbursement for overhead expenses because of an attorney general's opinion. A bill now in the Legislature would restore that, but the bill's chances of passage diminish as the regular legislative session winds down.

Of course, the important question is not what is best for lawyers or for criminals, but what is best for public safety and justice. And the fact is that if the state doesn't pay defense lawyers well enough, we reduce the likelihood that guilty people will be punished and innocent people will be set free. That's not justice, nor does it make our streets safer.

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