It seems like the best way to point out the tragic absurdity of capital punishment is simply to look to Texas, which puts to death more people than any other state. A few months ago, the Lone Star State was the focus of national scrutiny after a New Yorker article on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and executed for starting a deadly fire he almost certainly did not commit. (Dozens of experts said that the investigators got the basic science wrong, and that the fire for which Willingham was accused was not arson.)
Now, we get the sad tale of Linda Carty, a British woman convicted of murder in Texas, and whose court-appointed attorney, Jerry Guerinot, has become notorious for losing capital cases.
Prosecutors said Ms. Carty had orchestrated a macabre plot to kidnap and murder Joana Rodriguez and claim Ms. Rodriguez’s newborn son as her own. The evidence against Ms. Carty consisted mostly of testimony from four men said to be her accomplices, who were described by a prosecutor as “an armed robber, a dope dealer, a drive-by shooter and another armed robber.”
Mr. Guerinot did not visit Ms. Carty for three months after he was appointed to represent her. Ms. Carty, in a video interview with Mr. Humphries, described her meeting with Mr. Guerinot just weeks before her trial: “I met this guy for less than 15 minutes. Once.”
“Basically,” she told The Observer, “he’s an undertaker for the State of Texas.”
Mr. Guerinot never interviewed Jose Corona, who was Ms. Carty’s common-law husband but gave powerful testimony about a motive for her actions — that she desperately wanted a baby.
Mr. Corona later said he did not want to help the prosecution but believed he had no choice.
“It was never explained to me that there is a marital privilege, and under the privilege I had the right to refuse to testify,” he said in a sworn statement.
Mr. Corona added that he would have appeared as a defense witness had he been asked. “I would have testified that Linda did not deserve the death penalty and that I do not believe she is an aggressive person or a threat to society,” he said. …
Mr. Guerinot also never contacted the British Consulate, which would have worked hard to help prevent one its citizens from being executed. But Ms. Carty’s government did not learn of her case until it was too late, and the expensive lawyers it has since hired for her have faced procedural barriers. In rejecting some of their claims, Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore, a federal trial judge in Houston, acknowledged that this was “a harsh result.”
And Mr. Guerinot failed to interview Charlie Mathis, a Drug Enforcement Agency officer for whom Ms. Carty had worked as an informant.
The lower courts were not impressed with Mr. Guerinot’s work in Ms. Carty’s case. But they let her death sentence stand.
Judge Gilmore, for instance, said Mr. Guerinot “made an imperfect attempt to avoid conviction and death.”
“But,” she added, “the Constitution does not require perfection in trial representation.
Mr. Guerinot, for his part, has given up capital work and now handles more ordinary criminal cases, on a volume basis. An analysis in The Houston Chronicle last year found that he had represented 2,000 felony defendants in 2007 and 2008 — far above the caseload limits recommended by bar associations and other groups that take criminal defense work seriously.
In order to support the death penalty, you have to assume a world in which the many of the unseemly things we know about our criminal justice system — a lack of rigor, little access to sufficient counsel, and an aversion to correct egregious errors — are simply not true. These kind of life-or-death decisions have become so mundane in Texas that its criminal justice apparatus has become infected with a disturbing degree of callousness. It’s as if no one cares whether they get it wrong.