If Your Lawyer Wants You Executed

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Curtis Osborne

In 1990, Curtis Osborne, a small-time cocaine dealer and addict, killed two people in a dispute over $400. His crime revulsed the town of Griffin, Georgia, one measure of which was the bigoted remark a local inmate reported hearing at the jail: "That little nigger deserves the chair."

As repulsive as the remark was on its own, far more disturbing was the fact that the person alleged to have uttered it was Osborne's own court-appointed lawyer. And somehow, through years of appeals in state and federal courts, no tribunal has squarely confronted this basic but fundamental question: is a person on trial for his life entitled to a lawyer who does not hold him in contempt and believe he should be executed?

Osborne is scheduled to be executed Wednesday. His last-ditch plea to have his sentence commuted to life in prison was denied this morning by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, despite supportive letters from Georgia luminaries including former President Jimmy Carter and former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson — a Democrat and a Republican, respectively.

His case is a vivid example of the way legal "technicalities" have tipped the scales from favoring death row prisoners to favoring the state. Georgia officials, after all, never had to try to prove that Osborne's lawyer was not a bigot, or even that his feelings about his client shouldn't matter one way or the other. Instead, they were the beneficiaries of court rulings that said the issue was moot for procedural reasons.

From the record of his case, Curtis Osborne was a numbskull junkie who managed to sell his friend's motorcycle for $400, then pocketed the money. When the friend came after the cash, Osborne shot the man and his girlfriend at close range. He later tried to explain the gunshot residue on his hands by saying that he fed his dog doses of gunpowder, but the authorities weren't impressed. Osborne eventually cracked and confessed.

Soon after, the flamboyant Johnny Mostiler, a local lawyer known for his abundant jewelry, handlebar moustache and overwhelming caseload, became his attorney. In those days, Mostiler represented all the indigent inmates in the county for a flat annual fee, hundreds and hundreds of felony cases. His clients often filed into court shackled to one another in rows to enter their guilty pleas, according to a profile in American Prospect magazine. So suffice it to say that he didn't have a lot of time for Osborne.

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