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Strange Justice for Victims of the Missouri Public Defender Funding Crisis: Punishing the Innocent

Strange Justice for Victims of the Missouri Public Defender Funding Crisis: Punishing the Innocent

Sean D. O'Brien*

The full text of this article can be found in PDF form here.

I am grateful to have had one last opportunity to sit with Missouri Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman at the 2016 Richard J. Childress Memorial Lecture at Saint Louis University School of Law and listen to dedicated advocates address problems and issues arising from the ongoing crisis in Missouri indigent defense. After the lecture, Judge Teitelman shared a personal story with former Saint Louis University Law School Dean Michael Wolff, his former colleague on the Supreme Court. Judge Teitelman authored the opinion that exonerated and freed Joseph Amrine from death row based on newly discovered evidence of his innocence, and Dean (then Judge) Wolff wrote a compelling concurrence.

After his release from prison, Joe was invited to sit at the head table for the Legal Aid of Western Missouri Justice for All Luncheon with keynote speaker Sister Helen Prejean and dignitaries that included Judge Teitelman and his fellow Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ray Price. Judge Teitelman was overjoyed to meet Joe, and, as he did with everyone, asked Joe to call him “Rick.” After lunch, Judge Teitelman insisted that Joe pose for a picture with him and Judge Price, who had dissented in part from the decision granting Joe habeas corpus relief. Joe stood with a Supreme Court judge under each arm, and just before the shutter clicked, he said, “Wait ‘til the guys back on death row see this.” Judge Teitelman laughed as hard telling the story as he did when it happened. Judge Teitelman’s recognition of Joe Amrine’s humanity on and off the bench exemplifies who he was as a jurist and as a human being. He treated everyone with dignity, respect, and good humor. He will be sorely missed. It is timely for this article to recall his significant contributions to the protection of innocent prisoners who have not been well served by Missouri’s indigent defense system.

Judge Teitelman’s decision that freed Joe Amrine is a good lens through which to view Missouri’s chronic indigent defense crisis. Joe is one of thirty-eight innocent people in Missouri since 1989 to be wrongly convicted of serious crimes and later cleared by new evidence. Collectively, these men and women have served nearly a thousand years of unjust incarceration in Missouri prisons. Not every Missouri miscarriage of justice reported on the National Registry of Exonerations was defended by a public defender, and not every wrongful conviction is caused by defense attorney error. The Registry identifies inadequate legal defense as the cause of nearly one in four of these
cases. However, systemic deficiencies such as those found to exist in the Missouri Public Defender System are undoubtedly contributing factors in many cases.

After all, the Sixth Amendment “envisions counsel’s playing a role that is critical to the ability of the adversarial system to produce just results.” It is impossible to know how many of the other miscarriages of justice caused by mistaken identification, false confessions, misleading forensic evidence, or official misconduct might have been prevented by a vigorous defense. But the innocence phenomenon, which saw a record number of exonerations in 2015, provides an important backdrop to the examination of Missouri’s indigent defense funding crisis.

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 *Sean O’Brien is a professor at University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law, where he teaches criminal law and procedure. He served as the former Jackson County Public Defender from 1985–1990 and was a founding board member of the Midwest Innocence Project.