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December 31, 2011

Year-End Review

2011 was a year of significant developments in the modern death penalty era, with events as diverse as abolition in Illinois to the execution of a man whose guilt was in serious doubt.   

Although these stories captured headlines, little was heard about the common thread that connected each event: the contributions of volunteer attorneys, many of whom worked closely with the Project.  They are the unsung heroes.

The Execution of Troy Anthony Davis 

On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, despite widespread public opposition and serious doubts about Mr. Davis’s guilt.  His execution sparked extensive legal and political conversation about the death penalty and the fairness of the American justice system.  The movement to stop Mr. Davis’s execution was one of the largest such efforts in the modern death penalty era.  Just one week before Mr. Davis’s execution, volunteer attorneys from Arnold & Porter received an Exceptional Service Award at the Project’s 25th Anniversary & Volunteer Recognition Event.  Without the years of tireless work by Arnold & Porter and their co-counsel at the Georgia Resource Center, the shocking facts and grave doubt about Mr. Davis’s case may never have come to light.  His attorneys’ heroic efforts to save his life and the national and international attention that the case garnered will allow Mr. Davis’s legacy to live on as the fight for justice continues for the men and women on death row. 

Abolition of the Death Penalty in Illinois

In March 2011, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. After signing the bill, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn said, "Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment[,] . . . the proper course of action is to abolish it. . . . With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”  The decision to abolish came after extraordinary revelations about the number of wrongfully convicted persons on Illinois’ death row.  Volunteer attorneys working with the ABA and other organizations helped exonerate prisoners and reveal the serious flaws in the Illinois death penalty system.  Fourteen additional states have now proposed bills to impose a moratorium on executions or abolish the death penalty entirely. 

Challenges to Lethal Injection

Debate about the constitutionality of the three-drug lethal injection protocol used to execute death-sentenced prisoners has fueled litigation efforts across the nation.  Volunteer lawyers have fought on behalf of many prisoners who claim the protocol causes extreme and unnecessary pain.  Because the legal challenges are entirely civil in nature, defenders desperately needed the skills and experience of the law firms to protect their clients’ interests, and dozens responded to the call. Challenges resulted in stays of executions in many states.  Legislation is now pending in several states to change or study the protocol before executions resume. 

Lethal injection also faced new challenges this year when foreign drug manufacturers expressed concern about the drugs used to carry out death sentences.  Hospira, Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, halted production of the drug in 2011 due to concerns about its use in executions.  Following Hospira’s decision, several states sought alternative sources of the drug, and capital defenders uncovered strong evidence that some states had illegally imported it.  With the help of volunteer attorneys, this situation was brought to the attention of the Department of Justice, which subsequently seized supplies of the drug in several states. 

Public Opinion in the United States

Support for the death penalty in the United States is at its lowest level Since 1972, contributing to an overall decrease in new death sentences nationwide.  Increased concern about the use of the death penalty in the United States reflects the invaluable efforts of volunteer lawyers and defender organizations working behind the scenes to ensure justice.  Skilled advocates reveal the many errors in the death penalty system, from racial bias to flawed forensic science, government misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel.  Public skepticism about the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty has been the result.