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ACLU Seeks to File Brief in Death Penalty Case

As part of its on-going indigent defense project, the ACLU of Utah filed a motion in Weber County District Court seeking permission to submit an amicus curiae—or “friend of the court”—brief in the death penalty case State v. Ethridge.

Jacob Ethridge, who is indigent, faces capital murder charges stemming from the 2008 deaths of two women. Weber County, which opted out of the statewide Indigent Capital Defense Trust Fund (which provides funds to all participating counties for the defense of capital cases), recently sought to replace Mr. Ethridge’s court-appointed attorneys with two new lawyers who have general service public defender contracts with Weber County.

Mr. Ethridge’s current attorneys were appointed approximately 18 months ago, while they were with the Weber County Public Defender’s Association (“Weber PDA”). In an effort to save approximately $100,000 per year, the Weber County Commission voted to eliminate the Weber PDA beginning on January 1, 2010. Weber County now contracts with individual attorneys for indigent defense services.

The proposed new lead attorney, who is currently under contract with Weber County to provide juvenile criminal defense and also maintains a small private practice, has never tried a capital case. Presumably, he would have been asked to add Mr. Ethridge’s capital defense to his already-existing caseload.

In its motion, the ACLU argued: “Weber County, having voluntarily opted out of the [Fund] and having consented to the appointment of [current defense counsel 18 months ago], may [not now] unilaterally decide to override Mr. Ethridge’s constitutional right to maintain the appointed counsel of his choice on the sole basis that it may save the county money.”

The ACLU further noted: “Having chosen to prosecute this matter as a capital case, Weber County has placed at stake not only Mr. Ethridge’s liberty, but also his life. . . . Weber County’s . . . interest in saving money simply cannot trump an individual’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel or his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.”

Following oral argument, the Court issued a lengthy written decision affirming Mr. Ethridge’s right to maintain his current counsel. Noting that ABA standards “suggest that continuity of counsel is important for adequate and effective representation,” the Court found that Mr. Ethridge’s counsel had already hired experts, developed trial and mitigation phrase strategies, and nearly completed their preparation for trial.

Quoting a case cited by the ACLU, the Court held: “‘[O]nce counsel is appointed to represent an indigent defendant . . . the parties enter into an attorney-client relationship which is no less inviolable than if counsel had been retained. To hold otherwise would be to subject that relationship to an unwarranted and invidious discrimination arising merely from the poverty of the accused.’”

The tide is turning on the death penalty. Not only are cries for alternatives growing louder across the nation but internationally as well. The U.S. is only surpassed by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the number of people executed in 2009. Many countries and international NGO’s are advocating for an end to the death penalty and recently retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens expressed the opinion that he felt the death penalty to be unconstitutional. UTADP is calling for a moratorium on executions in Utah while a study is conducted to investigate alternatives like life in prison without parole.

Find out more about State v. Ethridge >>