RAND Review News for Spring 2012

Type of Legal Representation Affects Outcomes in Murder Cases

In theory, the verdicts and sentences in criminal cases should be determined only by the culpability of defendants — not by the legal representation they receive. But a RAND study looking at the outcomes for murder defendants who were represented either by public defenders or by appointed private counsel in Philadelphia shows that this is not always the case.

Since April 1993, every fifth murder defendant in Philadelphia has been assigned a public defender, while the other four have been assigned an appointed private counsel. In a forthcoming article in the Yale Law Review, RAND researchers compare the different outcomes of the two types of legal representation for criminal defendants.

“How much lawyers matter is often unclear, because lawyers and clients typically select one another, making it hard to separate out the effects of lawyers from other effects,” said James Anderson, the study’s lead author. “But we were able to exploit a natural experiment in Philadelphia to measure the effect of lawyers in the most serious cases.”

Researchers isolated the effect of public defender representation versus appointed counsel representation in cases from 1994 to 2005. The differences in outcomes were striking, as shown in the figures. Compared with appointed private counsel, public defenders in Philadelphia reduced their clients’ murder conviction rate by 19 percent, their probability of receiving a life sentence by 62 percent, and their overall average time served by 24 percent.

In Philadelphia, Public Defenders Present a Stronger Defense

In Philadelphia, Public Defenders Present a Stronger Defense

To understand why such disparities exist, the researchers interviewed judges, public defenders, and the private attorneys who accepted the appointments. The researchers found that the appointed counsel in Philadelphia were impeded by extremely limited compensation, incentives created by that compensation, and conflicts of interest. Such factors presented obstacles to the appointed counsel investigating and preparing cases as thoroughly as the public defenders could.

In one respect, Philadelphia represents a special case because of local institutional history that has resulted in both extremely low pay for appointed counsel and a specialized unit in the public defender office that was trained to handle murder cases. However, in another respect, the study points toward a bigger problem, because hybrid systems that use both public defenders and appointed counsel for indigent defense are common in the United States.

“The vast difference in outcomes in the cases examined in Philadelphia raises important questions about the adequacy and fairness of the criminal justice system,” said Paul Heaton, the study’s co-author. square

For more information:

How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make? The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes, RAND/WR-870-NIJ, 2011.