AUSTIN, TEXAS — NOT every nonprofit organization's work is literally a matter of life and death. But in the case of the Texas Resource Center (TRC), which assists in death-row appeals, some inmates clearly think it is. As one recently put it: ''I would probably be dead by now'' if not for the center's efforts.
But TRC attorneys will no longer be helping in handling capital cases. Some $20 million in federal funding ran out over the weekend for this and 19 other legal resource centers nationwide.
Their closure is reviving a debate that goes to the heart of the conflict over capital punishment in America: What kind of legal representation should death-row inmates get, and who should pay for it?
Republicans in Congress, who pushed through the funding cuts, see the centers as an impediment to their tough-on-crime agenda. They argue many are a waste of taxpayer money and don't provide adequate representation.
But supporters believe the centers are often the only line of defense between a wrongful conviction and the gas chamber.
''The need for finding attorneys is much more serious today,'' says Steve Hall, administrator of TRC's Austin office. Capital punishment laws are ever-shifting, so recruiting experienced counsel is ''tough work. People do two or three [death penalty appeals] and feel like they've done their civic duty.''
The debate comes at a time when the number of crimes that can be tried as capital offenses is expanding, and the nation's death-row population is increasing. More than 3,000 inmates now await execution - twice as many as when the centers were created in 1988.
Perhaps nowhere is the conflict over representation more emotional than in Texas, where 400 people are on death row. Texas leads the nation in winning death penalty convictions. But the Lone Star State also tops the list in reversals of capital convictions.
It is concern over such wrongful convictions - seven men have been freed in Texas and three more likely will be, according to the TRC - that has led the Death Penalty Information Center to warn of a ''growing crisis'' in death penalty representation.
In a report released today, the Washington-based DPIC, which opposes capital punishment, bemoaned the closure of such resource centers. It warned of bills in Congress to curtail some appeals and charged state legislatures with ''concentrating on ways to shorten appeals, expand the death penalty, and limit access to the group of attorneys best qualified to represent them.''
Yet not everyone agrees that such centers are the best vehicle for helping inmates find representation. Texas Republican state Sen. Jerry Patterson first noticed the TRC when it claimed Texas was about to execute an innocent man. Mr. Patterson investigated, and charged the TRC with trying to win a case in the media it had lost in the courts.
In addition to complaints about sensationalizing cases, Patterson has criticized the TRC for spending some of its $4 million annual budget frivolously and offering poor representation. Patterson complains too of the time TRC takes to find the needed attorneys.
Hall counters that finding lawyers for the number of capital convicts churned out by Texas courts was done on a ''triage basis'' of who had imminent execution dates. ''It was as simple as that,'' says Hall, who notes that the TRC had 50 cases pending when it closed. ''That has been one of the horrors of Texas.''
THE problem stems in part, he adds, from the complexities and emotional toll of the work. Death-penalty cases are very involved, he says, and attorneys often work long hours for low pay. The process was complicated by the fact that until last year, only wealthy Texas counties provided money for state habeas appeals, which review a trial's fairness.
In response to a Supreme Court ruling last year, however, some states are passing laws to give capital convicts proper representation. This year, the Texas legislature passed a habeas reform bill that earmarks $1 million annually to pay defense lawyers.That amount is three times what is budgeted for prosecutors, although defense lawyers typically need greater funds to present their case.
Peggy Griffey, who leads the attorney general's capital litigation division, speaks hopefully of the impact the reform bill will have on what she calls the appeals process quagmire. The reform bill, which she helped draft, should shorten the average stay on death row from 10 to eight years, she says. Not only will convicts get a lawyer sooner, she argues, but two key appeals will proceed simultaneously.
Last week, the law, which took effect Sept. 1, saw its first fruits when a convict was granted a stay of execution pending appointment of counsel. But some experts question whether the allocated funds are adequate. $1 million might cover the cost of a single year's new cases, Hall says, but not the backlog. Others express concern over whether experienced lawyers will handle these cases and worry that a rumored $5,000 flat fee per case - about $10 per hour - won't attract many takers.