A new commission designed to improve the lawyering for poor criminal defendants launches today in Virginia, determined to oversee training and seek better funding for the lowest-paid defense lawyers in the country.

The new Virginia Indigent Defense Commission was authorized by the General Assembly in the last session and approved by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). The 12-member commission will oversee both public defenders and court-appointed lawyers who represent indigent defendants. It replaces the Virginia Public Defender Commission, which handled only public defender offices.

Executive Director Richard C. Goemann, a former Fairfax County public defender, said seven innocent Virginians in recent years received one death sentence, four life sentences and 337 total years in prison. Those seven were "living proof that cheap defense threatens individual liberty and public safety," Goemann said at a news conference yesterday in Richmond.

The new commission will provide training and set standards for defense lawyers as well as enforce caseload limits, mainly on overburdened public defenders. The commission will also advocate for resources and improvements in the system, Goemann said.

Establishing the commission did not change the amount paid to defense lawyers for the poor. Virginia pays defense lawyers an average of $245 per case, the lowest in the country, according to many studies. A cap of $1,096 is set for all felonies except capital murder, and juvenile court cases pay a maximum of $112.

"The system as it exists is flawed," said Robert J. Hartsoe, a Fairfax defense lawyer who said he spent $75 of his $112 fee in one case on a court reporter. "I've had to subsidize Virginia's obligation to due process," he said. "Through decades of neglect, we have had absolutely no voice in Richmond."

The commissioners are Del. David B. Albo (R-Springfield); Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach); Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach); Robert N. Baldwin, executive secretary of the Supreme Court; Steven D. Benjamin, president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Edward W. Hanson; King Salim Khalfani, executive director of Virginia NAACP; Alexander N. Levay, former president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Virginia; Robert E. Shepherd Jr., professor emeritus at the University of Richmond's law school; David D. Walker, former Roanoke public defender; Jo-Ann Wallace, former director of the D.C. public defender service; and Carmen B. Williams, Richmond community activist.

Staff writer Michael Shear contributed to this report.