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National Lawyers Guild Sponsors Death-Penalty Discussion

April 06, 2011

Veteran criminal defense attorney Marc Bookman examined the death penalty through a legal and political lens during a discussion sponsored by the Drexel National Lawyers Guild on April 6.

Politics have as great an impact as the law in the imposition of capital punishment, said Bookman, a former public defender who heads the newly formed Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia.

“The history and politics of the death penalty are totally intertwined,” Bookman said, noting that the shifting composition of the U.S. Supreme Court helped close and reopen the door to capital punishment between 1972 and 1976 and fueled three different rulings on the admissibility of victim-impact statements between 1985 and 1991.

“The personnel on the Supreme Court is the one thing that affected this,” Bookman said. “There is no mystical answer in the law books.”

While the race of the defendant and victim, location of the trial, heinousness of the crime influence the outcome of capital cases, none of these factors looms as large as the competence of defense counsel, Bookman said.

Attorneys receive scant compensation for representing defendants in capital cases, Bookman said, adding that the problem is especially severe in Philadelphia.

Bookman had just filed a petition in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas arguing that the low pay for court-appointed lawyers representing indigent defendants in capital cases violated their clients’ constitutional rights.

Contending “bad lawyering” and the political aspirations of prosecutors fuel an “error-filled process,” Bookman set up his new organization to support defense teams at all stages of capital cases in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Judges are increasingly receptive to such support, Bookman said, adding that most jurists aim for fair outcomes.

Students interested in effectively representing defendants in capital cases would be wise to have compassion for the parties on both sides of the aisle, Bookman said.

“Look for humanity on your side of the courtroom, but constantly look for the pain on the victim’s side,” he counseled.