Just last week, I had a long conversation with a prestigious criminal-defense lawyer. He is concerned about the representation provided to the indigent in the criminal justice system.

“Concerned” may be putting it lightly. Perhaps “alarmed” may be more accurate.

His focus, I should assure you, is not necessarily on the run-of-the-mill criminal matter. His focus is on the problematic situation of death-penalty litigation.

This spring, I hope we will be able to publish a story on the topic. Extensive examination of many case files may reveal that many lawyers come to the representation less prepared and experienced than is ideal. Thus, those who face the possibility of the ultimate penalty may be ill served—which means, of course, society is ill served.

One thing this lawyer mentioned to me more than once stuck in my head: Reading case files reveals that lawyers too rarely take advantage of the opportunity to employ investigators. And as a result, important—perhaps fatal—avenues remain unexplored.

I must point out that this lawyer has the greatest respect for public defenders and the jobs they do with limited resources. Nonetheless, he felt compelled to examine best practices. That examination comprised the work of all defense lawyer, including private-practice lawyers.

That conversation came to mind last Wednesday when I came across a story titled “ACLU Critical of Public Defender System.” It comes from the Hungry Horse News, out of Columbia Falls, Montana, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

(You may follow the Hungry Horse News on Facebook. Why would you do that? Well, I’ve begun doing it myself, for perhaps the best reason I can imagine: They proudly announce, “It remains one of the few newspapers in America published in a log building.” Unverified, but cool nonetheless.)

In any case, the story indicates that the ACLU shares some of the same concerns that the lawyer communicated to me.

What do you think? Does capital defense lack anything? What improvements should be made? And what effect could changes have on the outcome of such cases?

On this Change of Venue Friday, I’d recommend a few articles that look at the criminal justice system.

First, surf over to the New Yorker. That’s where Jeffrey Toobin examines what’s happening to the death penalty in Texas. Once the nation’s leader in capital punishment, it is now talking a decidedly different tack. There may be a few reasons for that, but one of them may be the more sophisticated use of mitigation by defense lawyers. And Toobin adds that changes in prosecutors’ offices have played an important role too.

Jeffrey Toobin

So good is Toobin’s article that I am linking to it despite the fact that much of it is behind a paywall. Like many print publications, the New Yorker offers some content for free but really wants you to subscribe to get the rest. I read the whole thing, but the free abstract they provide is long, substantive and worth your time. And who knows: You may like it so much you’ll head over to a newsstand to pick up a copy.

The second article I’d recommend is E.J. Montini’s Arizona Republic column today on the law case surrounding the 1991 Buddhist Temple Murders.

E.J. Montini

We reported yesterday that the Ninth Circuit once again ruled to overturn the conviction of Johnathan Doody, based on the length and nature of the interrogation of the then-young defendant. (We also ran a book review of “Innocent Until Interrogated” by Gary Stuart, which examined the case. A portion of Gary’s book was a winner in the Arizona Attorney Creative Arts Competition in 2008.)

Montini spoke with a juror from the trial, who continues to aver that Doody was guilty. He says that the jury based their verdict on more than just the confession.

We might expect a juror to hold to that position. But the man’s comments are thoughtful and provide valuable insight into the process. Whether the State of Arizona decides to appeal again or prosecute again, insight into the system of interrogation and confession is always welcome.

Have a great weekend.