How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make? The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes

49 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2011 Last revised: 15 May 2012

See all articles by James M. Anderson

James M. Anderson

RAND Corporation

Paul S. Heaton

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: October 1, 2011

Abstract

One in five indigent murder defendants in Philadelphia are randomly assigned representation by public defenders while the remainder receive court-appointed private attorneys. We exploit this random assignment to measure how defense counsel affect murder case outcomes. Compared to appointed counsel, public defenders in Philadelphia reduce their clients’ murder conviction rate by 19% and lower the probability that their clients receive a life sentence by 62%. Public defenders reduce overall expected time served in prison by 24%. We find no difference in the overall number of charges of which defendants are found guilty. When we apply methods used in past studies of the effect of counsel that did not use random assignment, we obtain far more modest estimated impacts, which suggests defendant sorting is an important confounder affecting past research. To understand possible explanations for the disparity in outcomes, we interviewed judges, public defenders, and attorneys who took appointments. Interviewees identified a variety of institutional factors in Philadelphia that decreased the likelihood that appointed counsel would prepare cases as well as the public defenders. The vast difference in outcomes for defendants assigned different counsel types raises important questions about the adequacy and fairness of the criminal justice system.

Keywords: crime, public defender, appointed counsel, indigent defense, criminal procedure, disparity

Suggested Citation

Anderson, James M. and Heaton, Paul S., How Much Difference Does the Lawyer Make? The Effect of Defense Counsel on Murder Case Outcomes (October 1, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1884379 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1884379

James M. Anderson (Contact Author)

RAND Corporation ( email )

4570 Fifth Avenue, Suite 600
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-2665
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412 683-2300 (Phone)

Paul S. Heaton

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.upenn.edu/cf/faculty/pheaton/

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