Wiggins' case may set standard

By: Michael Stark

Kevin Wiggins, a Maryland death row prisoner, had his claim of ineffectiveness of counsel heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 24. The court heard about how Wiggin's lawyer failed to adequately defend him during the sentencing phase of his original trial. The court is in the process of making a decision.

The case has drawn national attention, because many believe that the Court may use Kevin's case to set a stricter standard for the quality of representation that a defendant deserves. Two justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, have publicly criticized the quality of lawyers that many death row inmates receive.

Kevin was convicted in 1988 for the robbery and murder of a 77-year-old woman, Florence Lacs. His trial attorneys had almost no experience in death penalty cases. During the sentencing phase, after he had been found guilty, Kevin's attorneys failed to draw on his horrendous background of childhood neglect and abuse, and his borderline mental retardation in making arguments that Kevin didn't deserve death.

To make things worse, Kevin probably is innocent. No physical evidence, witnesses or confession ties Kevin to the crime.

The case has so many holes that Federal District Judge Fred Motz stated, "No rational finder of fact could have found Wiggins guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt." Motz overturned Kevin's conviction, but the ultra-conservative 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction.

If the court rules on Kevin's behalf, it could have wide-reaching ramifications for a system that allows underpaid, inexperienced and sometimes impaired attorneys to handle the most serious cases in the criminal justice system.