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Report: Indigent defendants facing incarceration in Armstrong and Potter Counties often denied right to counsel

Under a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, Armstrong County and Potter County, Texas, requested the Sixth Amendment Center to study the counties’ court appointed counsel system in adult criminal trials.

Texas state law requires the county in which a criminal prosecution is instituted to pay the cost of appointed counsel and all reasonable and necessary expenses of the defense at both trial and appeal, with some reimbursement provided through the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. State law also requires the trial court judges who have jurisdiction over criminal cases in each county to adopt a local plan to provide and oversee attorneys to represent indigent defendants.

The report finds that a significant number of indigent defendants who face the possibility of incarceration in Armstrong County and Potter County are denied the right to counsel at critical stages of criminal cases. This practice is particularly egregious in Potter County misdemeanors, where sheriff’s office personnel, county attorney’s office personnel, and county court at law judges exert direct, overt pressure on indigent defendants to forego exercise of their constitutional right to counsel.

“It’s a worst-of-the-worst system,” said Amarillo defense attorney Jeff Blackburn. “It’s a deliberate and systematic violation; they’ve created a system they know is illegal.”

Indigent defendants who do receive counsel in the early stages of a felony and misdemeanor cases oftentimes have an attorney in name only. The flat fee compensation provided for appointed attorneys in Armstrong and Potter counties means that the public defense lawyers have incentive to take as many cases as possible and dispose of them as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, court appointed attorneys routinely fail to communicate with clients in jail and fail to investigate their cases.

“What we saw in Potter County specifically is that actually a lot of criminal justice stakeholders are uncomfortable with the process of encouraging defendants to forego representation at such a degree. What we saw was that there’s a discomfort but it survives through inertia. There’s no one in charge of saying, hey, maybe we should do something differently,” Sixth Amendment Center’s deputy director Jon Mosher said.

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