2008: Curtis Osborne, poorly represented

Nach Golde drängt,
Am Golde hängt
Doch alles.

Goethe, Faust

On this date in 2008, Curtis Osborne suffered lethal injection in Georgia for a double murder.

In the words of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, “Osborne was executed for shooting Arthur Jones and Linda Lisa Seaborne on Aug. 7, 1990. Osborne allegedly killed Jones because Osborne didn’t want to give him the $400 he got for selling Jones’ motorcycle. Seaborne was killed because she was there.”

Pretty awful.

It’s very difficult to capture in individual cases the structural dimensions of the death penalty system, simply because individual cases are, well, individual. The many plausible actual innocence cases are one thing. Here what you’ve got is a guy who unquestionably shot dead two humans so that he could feed his cocaine habit: making some procedural argument for Curtis Osborne is going to sound like a lot of special pleading.

But those procedural arguments are the very guts of the animal. The U.S. death penalty proposes, as an institution, to attempt not the question, does Curtis Osborne deserve to die?, but the question, among hundreds of Curtis Osbornes, do we have the apparatus to justly distinguish the ones that deserve to die?

As an impoverished drug addict, Osborne was represented at trial by a since-deceased public defender named Johnny Mostiler.

If you search this case, the thing you’ll find immediately is that another defendant being represented at the same time by Mostiler would later swear that Mostiler told him, speaking of Osborne, “that little nigger deserves the chair.” And the context of the conversation was about how Mostiler had just received a plea offer that Mostiler didn’t plan even to relay to Osborne, for the aforementioned reason.

Pretty awful.

This sort of thing is hard to substantiate: the allegation comes from a man serving a murder sentence of his own, and Mostiler isn’t around to defend himself. But on its own, it’s a shocking claim and a reminder of how profoundly the trial attorney’s performance shapes the entire legal experience. As Time magazine put it, what if your lawyer wants you executed?

Whether Mostiler really dropped an N-bomb on Osborne’s case, we really don’t know. But it’s been said that capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment, and the fact of the matter is that not many of any race who have recourse to indigent defense are served at the bar by Atticus Finch.

Leave aside even that shocking racism allegation, one that no court saw fit to adjudicate. (Prosecutors called the racism claim “outlandish”; appellate court ruled it procedurally out of bounds.) Just reckon the structural situation.

The American Prospect profiled the blinged-out, fast-living Mostiler after his death — breathing not a word about Osborne’s case, which was nowhere on anybody’s radar — and described, essentially, the neoliberal project in action for public defenders.

Mostiler represented not only Osborne, but virtually every poor defendant in Spalding County, Georgia … because, in 1990, he’d pitched the county on a fixed annual contract. Mostiler argued that the county was

wasting money paying as many as 20 court-appointed attorneys $50 an hour to handle indigent cases without knowing exactly how many hours those attorneys would bill during any given year. Mostiler proposed instead that the commissioners pay him a flat fee to handle all of the county’s indigent cases, regardless of the number. That way the county would have to deal with only one lawyer, and it would know its final bill at the start of the fiscal year rather than at the end.

Let justice be done though the heavens fallwithin the confines of fiscal probity. This grift was going to be worth a good deal more than $400 … and come with its own body count, too.

Mostiler bragged about saving the county a good million bucks over the course of the nineties. That’s a new definition of the adversarial judicial process, fresh-minted for the race-to-the-bottom era: every exertion by a defense attorney on his client’s behalf costs him part of his own paycheck.

Small wonder that Mostiler hardly ever tried cases — no more than seven a year, he said, out of as many as 900 felonies. Most were dispatched within minutes in shotgun plea deals and no small number of those momentary clients remain on the inside of a Georgia penitentiary as we speak. Did we mention that Mostiler did all this “lawyering” in only 60% of his lawyer time? He kept up a lively private civil practice, too, one where he probably averaged more than 100 minutes per case.

Death sentences, of course, don’t result from plea bargains — but at Mostiler’s zero-sum rates he also wasn’t going to prep this like the Dream Team. Slate reported that

Mostiler never hired a psychiatrist to examine evidence that Osborne was a victim of childhood abuse, and was borderline retarded, despite a court-ordered sanity evaluation that had found “indications of depression, paranoia, and suicidal ideation.” He never examined the history of mental illness in Osborne’s family because, he said, he didn’t know how to conduct that kind of investigation. Mostiler called no expert witnesses to testify for his client and didn’t bother to interview the state’s experts before they appeared at trial. And he rejected appointment of a second attorney to help with Osborne’s defense, which the American Bar Association and all serious death penalty litigators say is essential if a capital murder defendant is to receive a fair trial.

Pretty damn awful.

Once Osborne’s conviction was in the books at the trial level, no appellate court could intervene without clearing a very high bar: would the evidence un-investigated and the argument un-made likely have made a difference? Could anyone prove that Mostiler described his client with a racial slur? Nobody could really say so. End of story.

It was 18 years between the time Osborne laid those two souls in the ground and the time he laid himself down on the gurney. The irony is that all that time, all those exhaustive appeals, left the most salient and troubling questions in his case un-examined. There were substantive questions here, but Georgia prevailed in a procedural argument that those questions remain closed.

All this unsalved death and sorrow, and all for what? So Curtis Osborne could have another hit. So Spalding County, Georgia wouldn’t have to trouble the property levies with billable hours. For nothing but a little bit of money.

On this day..