Eighty years ago, in 1932, the United States Supreme Court held that every capital defendant had a Constitutional right to the “guiding hand of counsel at every step of the proceeding against him.” Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), reversed the convictions and death sentences of nine young men known as “the Scottsboro Boys.” This landmark decision created the expectation that no capital defendant would have to face a capital trial without a competent and effective legal advocate at his side.
But just last month, a federal court denied relief to a death-sentenced prisoner whose defense lawyer admittedly drank a quart of vodka every day of his capital trial. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that “a fairminded jurist could agree with the Georgia Supreme Court that [the defendant] was not prejudiced by his trial lawyers’ assumed deficiencies . . . .” Holsey v. Warden, No. 09-14257, 2012 WL 4017294, at *42 (11th Cir. Sept. 13, 2012).
“Not prejudiced” by a drunken lawyer? This cannot be the kind of legal representation that Justice Sutherland envisioned when he wrote about the importance of legal advocates in the Powell decision. Today, too many on death row have been denied the assistance of competent defense counsel at trial. Their only chance is on appeal, where skilled and zealous advocates can correct the terrible errors that occurred. But for death-sentenced prisoners, securing competent legal representation is one more obstacle that keeps a real chance for justice out of reach.
This is why the Death Penalty Representation Project exists.
Through our recruitment work, we find volunteer lawyers who agree to be the “guiding hand” that death-sentenced prisoners so desperately need. Through our systemic reform efforts, we demand improvements such as counsel certification programs and consequences for incompetent and negligent lawyers. And by training at defender and judicial seminars, we push for use of standards that will ensure high quality legal representation for every capital defendant.
We want to be able to help everyone who needs us. That’s why I hope you will consider making a year-end financial gift to support our work. Your funding – every dollar of it – is used for our substantive, programmatic efforts. It is urgently needed, and it will be used for critical, life-saving work.
If you are as outraged as we are that drunken lawyers represent defendants facing a death sentence – then please work with us. Consider becoming a volunteer lawyer. And please make a generous financial contribution to the Project. Your support is so important. Join us, and help us continue our fight for justice for the men and women on death row.
Robin. M Maher