On February 26, 2014, Paul A. Howell was executed in Florida without any federal court review of his substantial constitutional claims. Why was he executed without a fair hearing? His court-appointed attorney missed a filing deadline, foreclosing the critical safeguard of federal habeas review. Had Mr. Howell received a fair hearing, he could have shown that he was plagued by bad lawyering from the very start of his case. Mr. Howell’s trial counsel had a conflict of interest, resulting in his removal from another of Mr. Howell’s cases. Yet this counsel was not removed from the trial culminating in Mr. Howell’s death sentence and ultimate execution. The conflict of interest quite likely caused trial counsel to provide inadequate lawyering in several respects. Trial counsel did not conduct a constitutionally adequate investigation into the mitigating aspects of Mr. Howell’s life. Nor did trial counsel consult appropriate experts and lay witnesses to help explain to the jury the mitigating force of certain facts.
The Death Penalty Representation Project was created to help prevent the execution of inmates who have not had a fair hearing. We recruit and work closely with pro bono counsel so that they can conduct strategic, cost-effective litigation and file pleadings on time. As a result of our efforts, over 60 death-sentenced prisoners have been saved.
Recent United States Supreme Court decisions allow inmates to try to correct in federal court bad lawyering that occurred at trial and in state appellate courts. But with this opportunity comes a great need—a need for volunteer lawyers to remedy a previous lack of solid assistance. Death-sentenced inmates desperately need good attorneys to investigate and then litigate arguments about what should have been, but was not, done at trial. This need is deepened in states like Alabama, which simply refuse to fund their habeas process. The Death Penalty Representation Project helps fill this pressing need for committed, competent counsel. We work with volunteer lawyers who appreciate that our criminal justice system utterly fails when the amassed resources of the state against the most helpless are not balanced by a meaningful defense.
In addition to recruiting and providing technical assistance to volunteer attorneys, we work to reform capital counsel systems. We work with various actors in the criminal justice system—judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors— to promote structural changes to assure fairness. Across the United States, we strive for reform so that people facing the death penalty will have competent and adequately resourced counsel.
On a personal note, I am honored to be named Director of the Project. After 13 years of amazing work, Robin Maher has left the project to begin another exciting phase of her career. She will be sorely missed; I am mindful that I have big shoes to try to fill. For the last 15 years, I have solely litigated capital cases, both as a trial and post-conviction attorney. I have intimately seen the ways in which systems of capital representation can be improved. With the other members of the Project’s team, I hope to use our collective experience to help remedy some of the failings. I look forward to meeting you, working with you, and serving as a resource.
Michael Lasher, Director