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How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make? The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes

NCJ Number
Date Published
December 2011
47 pages
Case outcomes for indigent murder defendants in Philadelphia - who are randomly assigned to public defenders (one in five indigent murder defendants) or appointed private counsel (all other indigent murder defendants) - are compared according to whether they are represented by a public defender or appointed private counsel.

Public defenders in Philadelphia reduced their indigent clients' murder conviction rate by 19 percent and lowered the probability that their clients received a life sentence by 62 percent compared to indigent clients with appointed private counsel. Public defenders reduced overall expected time served in prison by 24 percent. There was no difference in the overall number of charges for which indigent defendants were found guilty between the two types of counsel. In order to identify possible explanations for the disparity in case outcome between public defenders and appointed private counsel, the study interviewed judges, public defenders, and private attorneys who took court appointments. These interviews suggest that the causes of the disparity in case outcomes between cases with public defenders and those with appointed private counsel stem from incentive structures created by the appointment system and a resulting failure of appointed private counsel to prepare cases as thoroughly as the public defenders. It is the responsibility of legislators and court policymakers to ensure that the court system of a jurisdiction monitors and maintains a high quality of defense services for indigent defendants; otherwise, the right to counsel rests upon a defendant's financial resources rather than the court's commitment to equal justice for all. The basic dataset for this study included a sample of 3,412 defendants charged with murder in Philadelphia between 1994 and 2005 in Municipal Court. 5 tables and 2 figures

Date Published: December 1, 2011