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Texas Lawyer Quits with 0-34 Record of Losses in Death Penalty Cases

by Matt Clarke

If you were on trial for your life, you would want the best possible lawyer. That would exclude Houston, Texas attorney Jerry Guerinot, 71, who has a great deal of experience but a very poor track record. Guerinot lost all 34 capital cases he defended at trial, and in August 2016 announced he was no longer taking such cases.

Not all of Guerinot’s clients who faced capital punishment reside on death row. Thirteen received life sentences in plea bargains or jury verdicts. Two had their death sentences commuted to life after the U.S. Supreme Court held that defendants who were younger than 18 at the time of the offense could not be sentenced to death. One is awaiting retrial. Ten have already been executed.

“People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty,” observed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Guerinot’s dismal record in death penalty cases reflected a failure to “conduct even rudimentary investigations,” according to an article in the New York Times titled “A Lawyer Known Best for Losing Capital Cases.”

“He doesn’t even pick the low-hanging fruit which is hitting him in the head as he walks under the tree,” said University of Houston law professor David R. Dow, who is also the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service – an organization that provides representation for death row prisoners.

Guerinot countered that he takes the worst of the very worst cases because “Somebody’s got to defend – ‘defend’ is the wrong word – represent these people.”

Certainly Linda Anita Carty, a 51-year-old woman with dual U.S. and British citizenship who currently sits on death row in Texas, would agree that she was not “defended” by Guerinot.

Carty was convicted of convincing three men – whom the prosecution described as an armed robber, a dope dealer and a drive-by shooter – to kidnap and murder her neighbor, Joana Rodriguez, so Carty could steal and raise her newborn son. With one important exception, the prosecution’s evidence consisted primarily of testimony from Carty’s co-defendants. That exception was Carty’s common-law husband, Jose Corona, who testified how desperately she had wanted a baby – unwittingly providing the prosecution with a motive for Rodriguez’s murder.

Guerinot never interviewed Corona and never explained that marital privilege meant he did not have to testify against his common-law wife. Corona was not called as a defense witness during the punishment phase of the trial, but said he would have testified that Carty was neither aggressive nor a threat to society.

Guerinot also never contacted Drug Enforcement Administration agent Charlie Mathis, for whom Carty acted as an informant. Mathis said he would have testified that Carty was “not a violent person, let alone a cold-blooded murderer.” Carty wasn’t accused of killing Rodriguez herself; she was convicted under Texas’ law of parties. Her three co-defendants received prison terms but were not sentenced to death.

A Texas state court rejected Carty’s most recent appeal on September 1, 2016, finding that while prosecutors should have turned over witness statements and other information in the 2002 trial, their failure to do so would not have changed the jury’s verdict.

Another contributing factor to Guerinot’s poor representation in capital cases may have been his excessive caseload. According to an analysis by the Houston Chronicle, he represented around 2,000 felony defendants in 2007 and 2008 – far above the limits recommended by bar associations.

In 1996, within a seven-month period, Guerinot represented four separate capital defendants in trials, all of whom were convicted and sentenced to death.

“It is unthinkable that a defense attorney would try four separate death penalty cases to verdict in the space of seven months,” noted Jim Marcus, co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas.

Unthinkable unless the attorney doesn’t care whether his clients are sentenced to death, that is. With Guerinot no longer taking capital cases, defendants in Texas now have a slightly better chance of avoiding the death penalty.