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On The Front Lines

Overburdened Public Defenders Jeopardize Sixth Amendment Right to a Fair Trial for Poor Clients

WASHINGTON, DC  — Warning that overburdened, underfunded and—consequently, at times—incompetent public defenders jeopardize the Sixth Amendment’s assurance of the right to a fair trial when they fail to present an adequate defense for those too poor to hire a competent attorney, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case of Vickers v. Missouri. In Vickers, a Missouri man was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole after a trial court refused to allow Victor Vickers’ public defender to present last-minute testimony discovered on the morning of the trial that placed Vickers elsewhere at the time of the alleged murder. Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the court violated Vickers’ Sixth Amendment right to present a defense to criminal charges when it ruled that the delay in providing notice of the witness justified the exclusion of crucial evidence exonerating Vickers. 

Affiliate attorneys Michael J. Lockerby, David A. Hickerson and Heather A. Lee of Foley & Lardner LLP in Washington, D.C., assisted in presenting the arguments in Vickers v. Missouri before the Supreme Court.

“Justice in America is not all it’s cracked up to be. The system is broken, almost beyond repair,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “In courtroom thrillers like 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, justice is served in the end because someone—whether it’s Juror #8 or Atticus Finch—chooses to stand on principle and challenge wrongdoing, and truth wins. Unfortunately, in the real world, justice is harder to come by, fairness is almost unheard of, and truth rarely wins. Chronic injustice—fueled by corrupt prosecutors, overburdened public defenders, apathetic judges and a system that punishes those too poor to buy their way to justice—has turned the American dream into a nightmare.”

In August 2011, Victor Vickers was charged with first-degree murder after three men forced their way into a home and shot one of the residents. At trial in 2016, the prosecution relied solely upon the testimony of another resident of the home, who initially could name only one of the men who entered the home. Thereafter, the witness stated she recognized a man she saw outside the home before the shooting as “V.V.” and later identified the person she saw as Vickers. No physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA samples, was introduced placing Vickers at the scene of the shooting. Vickers was represented at trial by a Missouri public defenders, one of a legion of underpaid attorneys who suffer under heavy workloads and cannot devote adequate time to their cases. On the morning Vickers’ trial was to begin, his public defender learned of an alibi witness who could testify that Vickers was elsewhere at the time of the shooting. Vickers’ public defender sought to add the alibi witness to the witness list for the trial, but the prosecution objected, invoking a court rule requiring defendants to disclose witnesses they intend to call. Even though the public defender offered to delay the trial to allow the prosecution to investigate the witness, the trial court ruled the witness should be excluded because the court rule was not complied with and the state would be prejudiced by the alibi testimony. Vickers was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that exclusion of the alibi witness violated Vickers’ constitutional right to present a defense because of the public defender’s inability to give sufficient time to Vickers’ case due to the crushing workload placed on public defenders.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.