WHEN ROY J. BEVERLY went to trial in Henrico County, Va., for allegedly murdering his mistress, his court-appointed defense lawyers proved him innocent. In so doing, they offered a useful reminder of why the Constitution guarantees poor people the right to a lawyer at state expense. Mr. Beverly's lawyers demonstrated during his 1998 trial that Mr. Beverly's wife, not their client, shot Ericka Harris. Prosecutors dropped the case and arrested and charged Latonia Beverly, who was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter. For their services in protecting an innocent man and helping to solve the crime, Steven Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes received $1,660.75 -- far less than what the defense cost them. Unsurprisingly, like many good defense lawyers in Virginia, they have largely stopped taking court-appointed work.

Court-appointed lawyers in Virginia are among the worst paid in the nation. In non-capital cases, state law caps attorneys' fees at absurdly low levels, and the General Assembly has not even fully funded a raise it authorized a few years ago. An attorney defending a single felony charge that can bring between 20 years and life in prison can earn no more than $1,096 -- even if the case involves extensive pretrial preparation and a full-blown courtroom showdown. For a felony that could garner as many as 20 years, fees cannot exceed $395, and for misdemeanors they cannot exceed $148. A case such as Mr. Beverly's, which involved multiple charges, can bring higher fees. But even in such cases, fees are far below those in other jurisdictions. For example, D.C. Superior Court's chief judge, Rufus King III, says an attorney in a murder case in Washington will routinely receive $5,000 to $16,000.

The fee caps create an incentive for lawyers to reach quick plea agreements, whether or not that serves their clients well. Resolving cases quickly is the only way to make a living under the caps. The more aggressively lawyers investigate a case, the more money they will lose. So those lawyers committed to representing poor clients fairly end up subsidizing the state's constitutional obligation toward the poor. Thus good lawyers drift away from such work.

Yet some poor people who can't afford lawyers are innocent. Others are charged too aggressively and need good lawyers to make sure they are not punished disproportionately. Nobody knows how many people like Roy Beverly are sitting in Virginia prisons because their court-appointed attorneys did not aggressively investigate the charges. But if Virginia does not invest more in the quality of lawyers it provides to those whom it would lock up, there will surely be more.