Letter to the editor, I am committed to continue working diligently to improve the quality of representation for indigent capital murder defendants. Current standards are inadequate and actually prevent the appointment of better qualified attorneys in greater numbers. HB 268 amends current law to implement major improvements. Separate standards for the diverse requirements of trial, direct appeal, and post conviction writ counsel are mandated. For the first time, trial counsel must have prior experience in the selection of juries in capital cases before they can assume the role as lead counsel. Current standards don't require this nor do they contemplate the availability of more proficient attorneys, such as former appellate briefing attorneys to represent indigents on appeal, or former prosecutors who have much more solid experience in the trial of capital cases. The tenor of your April 8 story [“Keel-Hauling Death Row Defendants,” News] – that standards would be lower and incompetent counsel would now be eligible – is incorrect. Current standards allow appointment of attorneys previously found to have rendered ineffective assistance, but HB 268 forbids that practice – just the opposite of what you reported. Your article basically rehashed the talking points distributed by the Texas Defender Service and others who have a vested interest in keeping the current narrow system as is. I invite your readers to view for themselves the lengthy testimony (www.house.state.tx.us) and particularly the pointed questions of democrat committee members who shared my concern that the few lawyers opposing the new standards were being disingenuous. This bill passed in a bipartisan vote out of committee and out of the full House 141-1. Your reporter, who has written two articles critical of my actions on this measure, didn't attend the committee hearings and has never attempted to interview me. I welcome your publication's insights on this issue and would entertain any specifics you believe could improve services to indigent defendants.
Sincerely, Terry Keel, state representative Austin, District 47
[News Editor Michael King responds: It's been so long since Rep. Keel returned a Chronicle phone call, we're delighted to hear that he would like to talk to us about his House Bill 268, even as we understand several of his colleagues – described here charmingly as "Democrat committee members" – are having second thoughts. We'll be glad to listen to his case for the bill. Keel also made his disdain for the bill's opponents abundantly obvious at the hearing (which Chronicle reporter Jordan Smith indeed covered fully on video, as Keel recommends to our readers). We notice Rep. Keel chooses not to address at all one of the primary objections to the bill – that it will trigger a "fast-track" federal appeals process that will be even more cursory and unfair to the condemned than the current system, which generally acts as a rubber-stamp to a Texas capital trial process that is all too often a parody of justice. To accuse the Texas Defenders Service – which defends capital cases at impossible odds for virtually no money – of a "vested interest" in the current system is simply laughable. We share Rep. Keel's stated goal of improving the quality of defense counsel available to the condemned – we just don't agree that the price should be making it impossible for that defense counsel to be effective.]