About the Project

Volume II Issue 3

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Our Mission

Our mission at the Death Penalty Representation Project is to ensure that all persons facing a possible death sentence have the assistance of competent, effective lawyers at every stage of the proceedings against them.  The American Bar Association believes that good lawyers are essential to justice, especially in death penalty cases.  Over the years, our volunteers have contributed their skills, time, and substantial resources to work with us toward solutions. 

The Project was created twenty-three years ago to address an emerging crisis of counsel.  Since that time, we have engaged more than one thousand volunteer lawyers to donate in excess of one million hours of pro bono time to assist the men and women on our nation’s Death Rows.  Today, we receive requests for help from nearly every death penalty jurisdiction in the country.  With your help and support, we will continue to make a difference in the lives of indigent capital defendants and Death Row prisoners in the following ways:

· By recruiting, training, and supporting volunteer lawyers for the hundreds of Death Row prisoners across the United States who are without counsel;

· By working with defenders, prosecutors, judges, and legislators to facilitate improvements to the counsel systems that fail so many poor people;

· By aggressively pursuing reform with systemic litigation when other reform efforts do not succeed;

· By promulgating guidelines for the defense of death penalty cases that are now widely acknowledged by courts and defenders as the national standard of practice;

· By collecting and providing resources to capital defenders and volunteer counsel; and

· By educating the public, bar, and judiciary about the problems with the death penalty and the urgent need for meaningful reform.

Our Cause

Approximately 3,300 people await execution in our nation’s prisons.  Hundreds of those prisoners face execution without lawyers to ensure that they received a fair trial.  Without lawyers, these indigent defendants have no realistic chance of challenging their convictions and death sentences, even though obvious and serious errors may have occurred during trial.

The Death Penalty Representation Project works to change this injustice.

More and more errors come to light each day.  In recent years, 138 people under sentence of death have been released from Death Row with evidence of innocence.  Hundreds of other sentences have been overturned because of serious constitutional errors at trial.  These cases highlight an irrefutable fact: the system by which the death penalty is administered is literally fatally flawed.

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Systemic Litigation

Two years ago, the Project launched a new initiative to address systemic problems with state counsel systems.  Working with pro bono counsel across the country, the Project coordinates systemic litigation to challenge a variety of problems in selected jurisdictions, including: the method for selecting, appointing, and monitoring the performance of defense counsel; compensation for counsel, experts, and mitigation specialists; restrictions on the funding for and selection of experts and mitigation specialists; and the structure, workload, and operation of capital defender offices.

This initiative is a response to the suggestion of many of our volunteer lawyers that the Project should pursue additional approaches to reforming the underlying causes of ineffective representation. Our goal is to ensure that every jurisdiction with the death penalty adopts statutes, rules, and procedures that are consistent with the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases. Generous funding from the ABA Section of Litigation makes this systemic litigation possible.

How to Get Involved

We are happy to discuss available cases and training opportunities, and answer your questions.  If you are interested in representing a death-sentenced prisoner, please contact us for more information at 202-662-1738 or deathpenaltyproject@staff.abanet.org.

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