Court: Death Row Inmate May Sue Public Defender

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A man freed after 14 years on death row for a murder he always claimed he did not commit can sue over the free, but allegedly shoddy, legal help he got at trial in Las Vegas.

The Supreme Court refused Monday to intervene in the suit filed by a Nevada man who claims an inexperienced public defender did next to nothing to help him avoid conviction and a death sentence in 1982.

Roberto Miranda was freed in 1996, after a judge found that the trial attorney had committed glaring errors.

Miranda sued, claiming the Clark County public defenders' office "threw in the towel while Miranda sped towards his execution."

Miranda's lawyers claim that the office routinely gave lie detector tests to new clients, and then used the results to decide how vigorous the client's defense would be. Miranda, a black native Spanish speaker from Cuba, also claims whites and members of the Mormon church got better legal help than minorities and non-Mormons.

Miranda claims he was given a county-paid lawyer, Thomas Rigsby, who had been on the job barely a year and had never tried a capital case.

Miranda claims Rigsby asked him to take a lie detector test, which was administered by an English-speaking examiner. The examiner concluded that Miranda failed the test.

"Thereafter, Rigsby did virtually nothing to prepare for Mr. Miranda's trial," Miranda's lawyers said in papers filed with the Supreme Court.

For example, Rigsby didn't interview witnesses Miranda told him would contradict his chief accuser and didn't call any of them to testify, Miranda's new lawyers claim.

Miranda's civil rights suit named Rigsby along with former Clark County chief public defender Morgan Harris and the county itself.

A federal judge threw out the suit, and Miranda appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based court first ruled against Miranda, but the court took the unusual step of rehearing the case. A divided 11-judge panel ruled earlier this year that Miranda can sue Harris and the county, but not Rigsby.

At issue is whether Clark County and Harris can be sued over the way Harris ran the office. Harris retired in 2001 after nearly three decades on the job.

The case is Clark County v. Miranda, 02-1629.