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FEATURE Wheel of Misfortune BY DEBBIE NATHAN The sun was just setting one day last spring when a slender, African-American seventeenyear-old named Bobby walked out of the Bexar County Adult Detention Center, precisely seven months after the evening he first walked in. Seven months is nearly a school year was a Sam Houston High School dropout who’d gone back to class to earn his G.E.D. His studies came to an abrupt halt in jail. But there Bobby learned another, much harder lesson. He learned what happens when you’re poor in Bexar County and ask for a criminal defense lawyer. He also learned that whether or not you get screwed in the process depends almost wholly on luck. The way Bobby tells it, ending up in the justice system was the last thing on his mind the afternoon of September 14 last year. That’s when the soft-spoken teen arrived at Village East Apartments, in the heart of the poverty-stricken East Side near Dignowity Park, to visit a longtime girlfriend who lives in one of the buildings. If you believe Bobby’s story, this is what happened next: he stopped to chat with some other young men who were hanging around the front of his friend’s apartment. Suddenly, they saw a group of policemen approaching. The young men split up; the others ran in one direction, and Bobby went much more slowly in another. “Walked off,” is how he puts it, but before he knew it, the cops had arrested him. He couldn’t fathom the reason, unless they were trying to frame him. At first glance, the cops’ version of the story makes a lot more sense than Bobby’s. Police reports describe how four officers were using binoculars to stake out the apartment complex after a neighbor complained that several black males were selling drugs there. One dealer was notorious, and was known to often wear a white T-shirt and long, khaki shorts. Sure enough, the cops reported, one black male that afternoon wore the same attire. The police reports say he ran from the apartment building, but not before he stuffed something into a clothesline pole. One cop caught up with Bobby, who the reports say was wearing a white T-shirt and khaki shorts. Another officer rooted around in the pole. He fished out three small plastic bags. Lab tests confirmed their contents: 4.7 grams of crack cocaine. Bobby had never before been arrested. Now he was booked into jail and charged, as an adult, with possession and intent to deliver drugs. The crime is a first-degree felony, with a maximum sentence of ninety-nine years in prison. Bail was set at $25,000, meaning it would take $1,000 to bond him out. His family could not afford $1,000, and they didn’t have money for a private lawyer either. So Bobby did what more than half of Bexar County’s 58,000 criminal defendants do each year after their arrests: he asked for a court-appointed attorney. His ordeal in the indigent defense system was about to begin. THE LEGAL LOTTERY WHEEL The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees Courtesy San Antonio Current everyone accused of a crime the right to a defense attorney. The Constitution doesn’t say explicitly if that right extends to people who can’t pay for a lawyer, but in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Supreme Court rulings ordered the government to provide poor folks with attorneys. Since then, several systems have developed to fulfill the mandate. Some are considered \(by groups such as the American Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties is a statewide public defender agency, in which state governments pay lawyers to work full time representing indigent defendants in every county. Another favored system is the county-financed public defender office. Whether stateor county-funded, public defender offices are generally deemed efficient and cost effective. They operate in every U.S. county with a city of more than 750,000 people. Every county in the nation, that is, except Harris \(encomInstead of a public defender office to secure lawyers for the poor, Bexar County uses what’s called the “appointment system.” It is a confusing hodgepodge of two nationally well-known models, combined with a unique and arguably unconstitutional arrangement called the “San Antonio Plan.” The first system works this way. All lawyers in Bexar County except for employees of the district attorney’s office, law professors, and others not in private practice have their names put into a computer. When a felony comes up that’s fendant’s name is also put in the computer and randomly paired with 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 1, 1999