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Bexar County has shortage of death penalty defense attorneys

Only 11 'first chair' lawyers meet qualification criteria


SAN ANTONIO – The stakes in a capital murder case are as high as they can get. Defendants are facing either life in prison without the possibility of parole or death by lethal injection.

Among the attorneys in Bexar County qualified to serve as first chair – lead counsel – in capital murder cases are Joel Perez and Raymond Fuchs.

Related: Reporter Debrief: Shortage of Bexar County capital murder attorneys

Right now, there are 68 capital murder cases pending in Bexar County, but only 11 lawyers who meet the qualifications to represent those defendants.

“I like the challenge,” Perez said. “I feel that those individuals need the best defense that they can get.”

RELATED: Family upset after death row verdict of father's murderer is commuted

Handling capital murder cases, he said, is work intensive and not financially lucrative.

“There are some lawyers that either for financial reasons or stress have dropped off the first chair list because of that,” Perez said.

The pool of lawyers is selected by a local committee of judges and veteran lawyers and is governed by state regulations. Regulations District Judge Sid Harle, who is on the committee, described them as “very, very stringent.”

“We have too many courts and too many cases competing for the same pool of lawyers,” Harle said.

Those lawyers are required to have experience that, more often than not, is elusive.

“You’ve got to be qualified, but yet they want you to have done it,” Fuchs said. “So you have to be a second chair and that just puts a huge burden on the first chair.”

READ MORE: Death row inmate has sentence reduced

Death penalty opponents point out that the solution to the problem is to do away with the death penalty. If things don’t change, it is something Harle said could happen.

“Frankly, if we continue at this pace, then, de facto, we’re going to do away with the death penalty simply because we’re not going to be able to get to trial,” he said.

Harle said that legislative changes to the rules are the solution.

“We’re not really relaxing the requirements,” Harle said. “We’re simply giving the local selection committee more discretion.”

Discretion, the judge added, that would mean expanding the pool with additional competent lawyers.

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