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No money for capital cases, defender says

Friday, June 05, 2009
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Karen Hawkins

The nation's second-largest public defender's office has run out of money to represent dozens of people facing the death penalty and is asking judges to rule out the punishment or appoint private attorneys, officials said Wednesday.

Cook County Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham said the county has about $100 left from a state fund that pays costs in death penalty cases. It expects to receive about $2.25 million from the state in September or October, but about 75 percent of that is owed to expert witnesses for work they've already done, Cunningham said.

"I urge those interested in justice to recognize that if the policy of this state is to have a death penalty, that policy must be accompanied by an appropriate financial commitment to the defense of the accused," Cunningham said at a news conference.

Illinois remains under a death penalty moratorium imposed in 2000 by then-Gov. George H. Ryan, who cleared death row after 13 inmates were exonerated. But prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty in the event that the moratorium is lifted.

Cunningham said his office planned to file motions in about 60 cases, half of its capital caseload, arguing that the state's failure to adequately fund capital defense hurts defendants' rights to effective representation and a fair trial.

The office had already asked a judge to bar the death penalty in the double-murder case of a man accused of killing his girlfriend's young sons.

The motions also ask the judges to assign private attorneys to cases if the death penalty stands; Cunningham said a separate state fund for private lawyers appointed to capital cases still has money available.

The Cook County state's attorney's office will fight the motions, spokeswoman Sally Daly said.

"We believe that these motions lack legal merit," Daly said. "Despite their claims that the Capital Litigation Fund is depleted within their office, the public defender has money in their general fund that could be appropriated to fund the costs that they've identified in these cases."

While individual attorneys have filed similar motions across the country, the systemwide action in Cook County appears to be the first of its kind, said Chris Adams, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Death Penalty Committee.

"It takes a lot of courage for lawyers to stand up and say, 'we're just not getting the resources we need to get the job done,'" Adams said. "[Defense attorneys] can't cut corners when someone's life is on the line."

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