As 2019 draws to a close, the Death Penalty Representation Project reflects on another year of extraordinary accomplishments and progress, even amid troubling attempts to step back due process protections for persons facing the death penalty. In a series of bitterly divided opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court took affirmative steps to allow executions to proceed where it determined that prisoners had not brought otherwise meritorious claims quickly enough. The Court also doubled down on its previous decisions denying a path to relief for prisoners who face torturous pain from lethal injection drugs. And, in news that spurred a media firestorm, the U.S. Attorney General announced a new lethal injection protocol and set execution dates for five federal death row prisoners, the first in 16 years.
In the midst of these alarming developments, momentous victories have provided hope and cause for celebration. The capital defense community and its pro bono partners rose to the challenge posed by the possible resumption of federal executions, winning an injunction against the executions and then holding off an aggressive legal campaign to set aside the injunction. At the state level, several death row prisoners from around the country also achieved extraordinary victories in their cases this year. In Texas, the high criminal court converted an intellectually disabled prisoner’s death sentence to life imprisonment following multiple U.S. Supreme Court victories; in another case, it stepped in at nearly the last moment to block the execution of a man with significant, unreviewed evidence of innocence. Both prisoners received fierce advocacy from pro bono attorneys and capital defenders. And in a Mississippi case, already tried six separate times, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to reverse a capital conviction and sentence in light of evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection.
Outside of the courts, the recognition of clemency’s indispensable role in the criminal justice system continued to grow, with governors in California, Kentucky, and Ohio exercising their powers to halt executions. In addition, the clemency campaigns of two prisoners—one in Texas and one in Florida—received broad national attention from celebrities, advocates, and politicians who were deeply disturbed by the possibility that the states were about to execute innocent men.
The Project also celebrated its own victory this year, in the form of a milestone achievement: 100 capital cases finalized with a sentence less than death following assistance by the Project’s pro bono partners. Since 1998, attorneys volunteering on capital cases through the Project have represented more than 350 individuals facing the death penalty, each matter placed with counsel representing its own victory for fairness and due process.
While we are proud of the decades of work that this milestone represents, there is much more to be done. We remain steadfast in our dedication to ensuring quality representation for each person facing the ultimate punishment, and we need your help. If you are a lawyer and have been thinking about volunteering, please allow us the chance to show you how you can use the civil litigation skills you already have to make a difference. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike can also get involved by following us on social media, signing up for our newsletter, and helping us educate about the need for reform. And anyone can be a critical part of our work by making a financial contribution. Our continued success is dependent on the generosity of our donors, and every dollar you give goes directly to ensuring that each person facing the death penalty has a committed advocate by their side.
Please consider getting involved and becoming an essential part of our fight to protect fairness and due process for the most vulnerable among us.
Director, ABA Death Penalty Representation Project