How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make?

The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes

by James M. Anderson, Paul Heaton

Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 0.5 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

One in five indigent murder defendants in Philadelphia are randomly assigned representation by public defenders while the remainder receive court-appointed private attorneys. The authors exploit this random assignment to measure how defense counsel affect murder case outcomes. Compared to appointed counsel, public defenders in Philadelphia reduce their clients' murder conviction rate by 19% and lower the probability that their clients receive a life sentence by 62%. Public defenders reduce overall expected time served in prison by 24%. They find no difference in the overall number of charges of which defendants are found guilty. When they apply methods used in past studies of the effect of counsel that did not use random assignment, they obtain far more modest estimated impacts, which suggests defendant sorting is an important confounder affecting past research. To understand possible explanations for the disparity in outcomes, they interviewed judges, public defenders, and attorneys who took appointments. Interviewees identified a variety of institutional factors in Philadelphia that decreased the likelihood that appointed counsel would prepare cases as well as the public defenders. The vast difference in outcomes for defendants assigned different counsel types raises important questions about the adequacy and fairness of the criminal justice system.

This research was prepared for the National Institute of Justice and conducted in the Safety and Justice Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment (ISE).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation working paper series. RAND working papers are intended to share researchers' latest findings and to solicit informal peer review. They have been approved for circulation by RAND but may not have been formally edited or peer reviewed.

Permission is given to duplicate this electronic document for personal use only, as long as it is unaltered and complete. Copies may not be duplicated for commercial purposes. Unauthorized posting of RAND PDFs to a non-RAND Web site is prohibited. RAND PDFs are protected under copyright law. For information on reprint and linking permissions, please visit the RAND Permissions page.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.