The quality of attorneys providing a defense to individuals charged with crimes that expose them to possible life without parole (LWOP) sentences varies tremendously. Some are not up to the extremely important task of providing a vigorous defense after conducting a thorough investigation. Whether unqualified, under-resourced, or uninterested, some defense lawyers fail fundamentally to comprehend and make their clients aware of the seriousness of the charges they face.

Eddie Joe Lloyd’s case is one example of how inadequate representation can land someone in prison for life. Although he was eventually exonerated by the Innocence Project, Lloyd served 17 years for a homicide offense because his defense team conducted almost no investigation into the case. After his first lawyer withdrew from the case only eight days before the trial, a new lawyer was appointed, did not postpone the trial, called no defense witnesses, and gave a five-minute closing argument.

Needless to say, Mr. Lloyd was convicted and sentenced to life. After they are convicted and finally have an opportunity to argue that their trial lawyers were constitutionally ineffective, nearly all offenders serving LWOP sentences are not provided with an attorney

Instead, they can only find a lawyer if they come up with money to retain private counsel (typically through cash-strapped family members or friends). Unfortunately, many of these private lawyers prey on the poor, extracting huge sums up-front to review the case and eventually report back that they can do nothing at all because too much time has passed or the legal avenues for relief have already been foreclosed. In a small number of cases—including Mr. Lloyd’s—lawyers working for innocence projects or clinics may intervene if there is a basis for arguing that the inmate is actually innocent of the crime. However, many go from having a bad lawyer to no lawyer at all.

The conundrum is a serious one. If jurisdictions continue to make LWOP an available punishment for so many crimes—from crimes like drug-dealing to committing property crimes as a repeat offender—they must protect defendants’ right to constitutionally effective defense lawyers. Yet, ongoing public defender crises around the country demonstrate that the states are not prepared to provide the protections required to make a system that punishes harshly operate fairly.