Osborn to be put to death tonight in Georgia: Case calls right to competent legal representation into question

I keep saying that we’re not as racist as we’re afraid we are and that when we do find instances of overt racism we have the capacity to cope and to act. Georgia is now confronted with just such an instance.

As the AJC is reporting that Curtis Osborne’s final meal tonight will be a cheeseburger, Alan Berlow writing in Slate wonders do defendants in Georgia have any right at all to competent representation?

During his five years as a justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, four of them as chief justice, Norman S. Fletcher says he voted to affirm “countless” murder convictions and a significant number of death sentences. But today Judge Fletcher is having second thoughts about one man he voted to send to the executioner in June 1993.

Curtis Osborne is scheduled to be put to death by the state of Georgia [tonight] night for a gruesome double murder he committed in 1990. There is no question that Osborne is guilty. But Fletcher says neither Osborne’s jury nor the Georgia Supreme Court knew the full truth about his history at the time they made their decisions. Most importantly, he says, they didn’t know that Osborne’s lawyer was a racist and had never put in the time needed to present his client’s mental problems and abused past, having concluded that, “The little nigger deserves the death penalty.”

On Monday, despite a letter from Fletcher and other testimony, the Georgia parole board rejected without comment Osborne’s appeal to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. This is a monument to the bankruptcy of the constitutional right to be represented by an attorney.

Also among the evidence indicating that the lawyer Georgia assigned to Curtis Osborne was racist, a plea bargain under which Osborne would have received a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, withheld by the lawyer because he said Mr. Osborne “deserved to die.”

The man making the charges is himself an inmate with a scary criminal history, but there’s plenty of corroborating evidence for those (like the chief justice) willing to look. Or read on.

In an OpEd in yesterday’s AJC, Clinton FBI Director William Sessions wrote that the Osborne sentence is a stain on justice:

When a person accused of murder is failed by his or her attorney, our faith in the verdict —- and in the criminal justice system itself —- is shaken. The finality of capital punishment demands complete confidence in the conviction and sentencing processes. Anything less is a mockery of the expectation of justice held by the citizens of this state, and Osborne’s case is blemished by a defense that leaves us anything but confident.

It is, unfortunately, too late for that expectation to be met.

On Monday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Osborne’s final appeal for clemency. On Wednesday, barring some unanticipated intervention, he will be executed by lethal injection.

The only thing more shameful than the failure to defend a man facing execution is that those in power turned a blind eye to that injustice.

Georgia has moved quickly to resume executions since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injections. We were the first state to hold an execution after the decision. Only two other states – Mississippi and Virginia – have put inmates to death. Texas is about to leap ahead. (More on what’s next for the death penalty via Jeralyn at Talk Left.)

Changing the culture here will be difficult. But Dallas County, TX, may be an instructive parallel. There District Attorney Craig Watkins, a Democrat and the first black DA in the history of Texas, set up an unprecedented cooperative effort with the Texas Innocence Project to re-examined hundreds of cases. (For more on that see here, here, and here.)

Politics matters.

  • runasim

    I oppose the death penalty on principle, but even if that weren’t so, I would oppose it on the basis of results.

    Aside from racism, the drive for law enforcement and prosecutors to make career points by stamping a case ‘solved’, no matter by what devious means, corrupt the whole justice system. That could be remedied if we had anyhting like adequate representation guarantees.
    But we don’t.
    We kill those people lacking the means to cry ‘foul’.