Barrett echoed similar sentiments on the problems facing his office. “A lawyer can probably only handle 40, maybe 50 case at any one time,” he explained. “Our lawyers have three times that amount, and people are taking pleas because they're sitting in local jail waiting for their lawyer to get to them.” With so little time spent on each of their many clients, lawyers are often unable to conduct interviews, review evidence, or pursue avenues of investigation that could be crucial to their defense.
Under the Sixth Amendment, everyone who enters the American criminal-justice system has the right to adequate legal counsel. Two landmark decisions by the Warren Court in the 1960s gave force to that promise. First, the justices unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that states must provide a lawyer if a defendant cannot afford one, effectively mandating the creation of modern public-defender systems. Four years later, in In re Gault, the Court held that juvenile defendants are entitled to the same due-process rights as adults, thereby imposing the same requirement on the juvenile-justice system.
But more than a half-century after the Warren Court’s revolution in criminal justice, the plaintiffs’ stories offer a window into how Missouri’s system falls short of that promise. A public defender told Shondel Church, one of the plaintiffs, he’d have to wait six months in jail before his lawyer could help him beat his felony theft charge. Church pled guilty to misdemeanor theft after three months instead. Brian Richman’s lawyer waived Richman’s right to appear before a judge with counsel for some hearings in a felony drug-charge case without consulting Richman first.
One of the most startling cases cited in the lawsuit is that of Randall Lee Dalton, who was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance after police raided the nursing home where he lived in January. Officers found a single pill of Lorazepam and arrested him for it, then discovered he had an outstanding warrant for writing a bad check and had failed to register as a sex offender in his county. (He was given a suspended sentence for misdemeanor sexual contact in 1994, according to the lawsuit.)
Dalton, who is described as physically disabled and mentally impaired, was then held on a $30,000 bond without seeing either a judge or his public defender, according to the lawsuit. He also did not have access to medication, nor did he meet his assigned public defender until he was brought into a courtroom for a bond hearing this month. He remains in jail while proceedings unfold as of the complaint’s filing.
The plaintiffs’ fleeting interactions with their own lawyers aren’t isolated incidents, according to the ACLU. “Public defenders [in Missouri] average just 8.7 hours on the most serious non-homicide felonies, amounting to less than 20 percent of the minimum time recommended by the American Bar Association,” the lawsuit said. “Overall, they are forced to devote fewer than the minimum hours recommended by the ABA in more than 97 percent of their cases.”