WEST CHESTER - Experience means everything when it comes to capital murder trials, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The court ruled earlier this month that defense attorneys will be required to meet certain qualifications before being appointed to capital murder trials.
Among them, attorneys must have conducted at least eight felony trials that conclude with a jury verdict and participate in six hours of capital trial-related training per year.
The changes will take effect within two years, but individual counties may impose them earlier, if they choose.
Attorney Samuel Stretton, who said he has represented as many as 40 murder defendants, believes the regulations are a good idea.
"Part of me feels bad that we have to have a rule that knocks out a lot of people," Stretton said. "But the other side, I've seen so many trials that were butchered."
Stretton worked with the Philadelphia Bar Association in the 1990s to establish standards there. The statewide rules will be more strict.
Chester County's President Judge Howard F. Riley Jr. said it will be up to the county board of judges whether or not the new rules are enacted before May 2006. Whenever it does take affect here, the judge predicted it would not have a significant impact on the county's ability to find qualified representation for murder defendants.
"We've been very fortunate in Chester County," Riley said, "with the caliber of attorneys doing capital murder cases."
He called the public defenders office "a credit to the county."
"We're blessed with attorneys in the public defender's office that they couldn't afford to hire on the outside," Riley said.
Graham Andes, the county's first assistant public defender also agrees with imposing the standards and he said the public defender's office already has several attorneys who would meet the qualifications.
"We certainly need standards, no question about that," Andes said. He recalled watching a lawyer - not from the county - botch a murder trial capital trial a few years back.
"His performance was abysmal, particularly during the penalty phase," Andes said. "He did not do any of the things I would consider even minimal."
The public defender's office handled four capital murder cases between 2002 and 2003. All four resulted in pleas, including the triple homicide case of Michael McGrory.
McGrory admitted to the murders of Kerry and Katherine Schadler and their unborn baby. He and co-defendant Matthew Eshbach - who was convicted more than a week ago of three counts of second-degree murder - will be sentenced today before Judge Juan R. Sanchez.
There are 227 people on Pennsylvania death row. Since 1978, when the state reinstated the death penalty, three people have been put to death and five have had conviction overturned.
"It is always important that counsel is qualified to do the area of law they are practicing," said John F. McKenna, president of the Chester County Bar Association "The question is how do you get that experience."
He suggested working a capital trial, even as the second-chair attorney, is a good way.
Stretton called trying cases a "dying art." He said he conducts 25-30 trials per year, but that is not the trend.
"Most attorneys don't get that opportunity, particularly in the smaller counties," Stretton said.
Part of the reason is lawyers all specialize in different types of law, he said. It is also because law firms have become "very business conscious," Stretton said, and "usually you don't make money when you are trying cases."
So attorney now have fewer opportunities to present a case to a jury.
"No matter how bright you are, and how enthusiastic you are, it takes a while to really learn to be a trial lawyer," Stretton said. "Everyone thinks they are the next Perry Mason. It is really a lot of hard work to get to be a good trial lawyer."
While that is generally true, Judge Riley said experience does not always outweigh natural skills.
"I've seen attorneys on their first case that have done a better job than some attorneys who have tried 15 or 20 cases," Riley said.