Wrongful Convictions: The Reality of Incompetent Defense

Wrongful Convictions: The Reality of Incompetent Defense

Incompetent defense is a tragic reality.

Consider the case of Jason Baldwin who spent more than half his life in a maximum security prison. He was one of three teenagers convicted in 1994 of the murder of 3 little boys. He and his co-defendants, Damien Echols and Jessie Miskelley Jr. – more famously known as the West Memphis Three – were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, death by lethal injection, and life imprisonment, respectively.

All three were innocent and all three remained in prison until 2011 under some of the most terrible circumstances possible.

This was a highly disturbing case. The media and prosecutors made much of the supposed satanic nature of the killings and were present in the courtroom during the trial.

There are three documentaries made about this case and its aftermath. In addition, there is a fourth documentary about the failure of the justice system in this case. Most recently, a feature film was made about the story.

The Incompetent Defense

What may stick out the most when you listen to this podcast featuring Jason Baldwin was the role defense attorneys played in his conviction before these boys were ever killed.

It wasn’t a good role.

When Jason was 11, police rounded up all the kids in the trailer park where he lived. Then, they took them all to court for playing hide and seek in an abandoned shed in the middle of a cotton field.

The judge said they should all be sentenced to reform school for two years. Their public defender agreed with the judge.

Because Jason’s mother stood up in the court and said her sons weren’t going to jail, the judge sentenced Jason and his younger brother to 5 years of probation.

This was how he already had a criminal record at the age of 16 when he was being investigated for the deaths of the three boys.

If Jason’s defense attorney had done his job and argued on his behalf instead when he was 11 years old, the outcome may have been different. Jason may never have been suspected of this crime. He may never have spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

During Jason’s trial for the murders, lawyers failed to call him or the impartial witness they had found to give him an alibi to the stand.

Listen to the podcast for more shocking detail about Jason’s ordeal.

Insufficient or Incompetent Defense and the Innocence Project

Insufficient or incompetent defense is cited by the Innocence Project as one of the main reasons for wrongful convictions. In almost any story of wrongful conviction that gets reported:

  • Defense attorneys could have done much more than they did,
  • Were outright cooperating with the prosecution,
  • Or put forth no effort at all.

For all of the cases overturned through advocacy and often with DNA evidence, this disturbing trend showed itself in many of these trials.

What the Innocence Project found was that defense attorneys were underfunded, overburdened, and sometimes sleeping or drunk during trials. Sometimes defense lawyers were disbarred shortly after having defended a death penalty case.

Here are the systemic problems contributing to this:

  • There are no national standards for creating and funding a system of public defense – to which every person should constitutionally have access to.
  • Therefore, most states basically don’t have a system for public defense. Lawyers are given miniscule amounts of money to mount a defense for their clients.
  • The standard for showing a defense to be incompetent is unreasonably high and courts must be deferential or show a strong presumption that defense was adequate. Therefore, almost no one who is wrongfully convicted can expect relief for bad defense.


A strong defense team is one of the most necessary aspects of our criminal justice system if it is truly to be impartial and to allow innocence until proven guilty. Unfortunately, for so many innocent people, the problems with the system and with poor defense, in particular, all but guarantee and wrongful conviction.

If you or someone you love has been falsely accused and need a strong defense, please reach out today.

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You may also like to read Wrongful Convictions: What You Need to Know