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Public defender without funds for capital cases

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Chicago Defender
by Kathy Chaney

Left with only $100 in their checking account, the Cook County Public Defender’s office said it can’t effectively try capital cases without adequate funding and filed June 3 motions asking judges to remove death as punishment or appoint private attorneys to the cases.

Abishi Cunningham, head of the second largest public defender's office in the country, said the office represents 90 percent of the death penalty cases in the county.

The majority of the defendants in the death penalty cases are minorities – 60 percent are African-American, 25 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are white, according to the public defender’s office.

The public defender gets money from the state’s Capital Litigation Trust Fund to try death penalty cases. This year, the office was allotted $1.75 million. It initially was approved for $2.25 million last year, but then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed it, Cunningham explained.

The fund was set up after a moratorium on the death penalty was imposed in 2000 by then-Gov. George Ryan. While the moratorium is in place, prosecutors can still seek the punishment should it be lifted.

“If the policy of this state is to have a death penalty, that policy must be accompanied by an appropriate financial commitment to the defense of the accused,” Cunningham told the Defender.

Cunningham filed motions for at least 60 cases, half of its death penalty caseload. Either take the death penalty off the table or appoint private attorneys, he said.



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