In “An embarrassment to Texas justice,” Houston criminal-defense lawyer Tom Moran writes about the case of his client Robert Thompson, executed the night before last after Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to commute his sentence despite the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, for a capital murder in which he was not the shooter, and in which the shooter was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
The difference between Thompson and his codefendant, writes Tom:
Butler was represented by Rocket Rosen. Thompson’s lead counsel was terrible.
I was appointed to do the state application for writ of habeas corpus. When I looked into the background of his lawyer, I was shocked.
The man’s license to practice law had been suspended three times before he was appointed to represent Thompson in December 1996. Two of the three suspensions were for messing up cases. One was for sharing legal fees with a non-lawyer. Two of the three suspensions were partially probated and the third fully probated.
The worst was the third suspension, in 1995 — only a year before being appointed to represent Thompson — was for messing up a court-appointed criminal case. A jury found professional misconduct and a district judge ordered his license suspended for 27 months (with the last 24 months probated).
Who was this “terrible” lawyer who made the difference to Robert Thompson between life and death? From reading Tom’s post, we wouldn’t know.
Is it that Tom is speaking no evil of the dead? No, he tells us that “the Harris County district judges have certified [Thompson’s trial counsel] to represent indigents charged with any other felonies, including those punishable by up to life in prison.” So the lawyer is still working, still representing people in criminal cases.
“Society owes it to itself,” writes Tom, “to ensure that people who face the ultimate punishment are properly represented.” But outside a very small circle of people, society has no idea who represented Robert Thompson.
I don’t fault Tom—having done all he could to save Robert Thompson’s life, Tom doesn’t owe society anything with respect to Mr. Thompson’s case. Lawyers have been historically reluctant to blow the whistle on each other publicly. (Besides, it’s been more than a decade since the terrible lawyer’s license was suspended, and he may not be a terrible lawyer anymore, though Tom’s evocation of the lawyer’s current appointment-certification status doesn’t suggest that this is his view.)
But I wonder: might the impulse that keeps Tom from naming this terrible lawyer contribute to the problem of unqualified lawyers representing people facing the ultimate punishment?
If lawyers were more willing to name-and-shame the worst among us, might society be better able to ensure that those people (as well as everyone else) are properly represented?
If, in the dark days of 1996, lawyers had been willing to speak up publicly about terrible lawyers like the one who wound up representing Mr. Thompson, might Judge Lupe Salinas have been shamed into appointing someone less shady?
And if so, might Robert Thompson be alive today?