Death Row Isn’t a High-Income Neighborhood, Nation’s Legal Experts Say


It is a pretty good bet that if Erik and Lyle Menendez are convicted, they will not wind up on Death Row.

It is not a place for the rich.

In California, every one of the 384 men and four women awaiting execution as of July 1 was poor enough to qualify for a lawyer at state expense, said Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the state Judicial Council.

Nationwide, no one seems to have made a systematic study of the finances of the executed, or of the 2,700 condemned prisoners. But veteran practitioners and scholars agreed they’d never heard of a wealthy person on Death Row.


“I don’t know of any affluent people who have been sentenced to death,” said Walter Berns, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of the 1978 book “For Capital Punishment.”

“The death penalty is for poor people,” said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and a defense lawyer in capital cases for 15 years.

Wealthy people have faced capital charges:

* Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, young sons of wealthy families and the “thrill killers” convicted of murdering a young boy, were spared the death penalty in 1924 after an epic defense by Clarence Darrow that focused on their mental states.

* Texas oilman T. Cullen Davis, charged with seriously wounding his estranged wife, Priscilla, and murdering her lover and her 12-year-old daughter in 1976. Although his wife and two other eyewitnesses identified Davis as the gunman, he was acquitted after a defense by prominent lawyer Richard (Racehorse) Haynes, who attacked Mrs. Davis for her drug use and extramarital affairs.

* Joe Hunt, leader of a group of wealthy youths called the Billionaire Boys Club, convicted in 1987 of murdering a Beverly Hills con man whose body has never been found. A jury rejected a death sentence and chose life without parole for Hunt, who is seeking a new trial.

Like the Menendez brothers, those defendants could afford to hire good lawyers.

“If you have money and can afford adequate counsel, you don’t end up on Death Row,” said Kica Matos, capital punishment research director for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“Trying capital cases is the legal equivalent of brain surgery,” Bright said. In the South, he said, court-appointed death penalty lawyers are paid barely enough to cover costs, are usually inexperienced, and often don’t put up much of a fight.

“I see cases tried with no experts for the defense, no investigator at all, and seldom one who knows how to investigate the life and background of the defendant,” Bright said.

One Georgia case he described in a Yale Law Journal article.

Gary X. Nelson, sentenced to death in the 1978 rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl, was represented by a lawyer who had never tried a capital case, was paid $15 to $20 an hour and had no investigator or experts. His closing argument was 255 words long.

Later, new lawyers, working at their own expense, found that crucial prosecution evidence, a hair on the victim’s body, could not be validly compared to Nelson’s hair--a fact mentioned in an FBI report that had never been disclosed. Nelson was freed after 11 years on Death Row.

But in California, for example, defense lawyers exaggerate the extent of ineffective representation in death cases, said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Dane Gillette, death-penalty coordinator in San Francisco.

Probably the chief reason rich people aren’t sentenced to die, Gillette said, is that “they, for the most part, don’t commit these kinds of violent crimes.”