Welcome to the Summer 2020 edition of Project Press! This edition is being published in the middle of extremely turbulent times on a number of fronts. While our publication schedule does not typically give us the space to address breaking news in this publication, we could not bring you this edition without at least brief commentary on two recent issues that have made national headlines. We also encourage readers to follow us on Twitter @deathpenaltyrep for the latest news and updates.
Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System
The United States death penalty system has deep ties to racial inequality, oppression, and terror. [See in-depth analysis from our colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative]. This history continues to reveal itself today through data showing a persistent and stark racial imbalance in all facets of capital punishment, from decisions about seeking the death penalty to jury selection to the bias that often infects the trials. [Read more in the current edition: North Carolina Racial Justice Act].
Capital defenders must be intimately familiar with these inequities and how they have the potential to affect the legal claims and rights of their clients. But it is also essential for capital defense teams to look inward at how team composition, implicit biases, and other unintended limitations may perpetuate these inequities and create a significant disconnect between client and counsel in a field where establishing a relationship of trust is absolutely essential. There are numerous resources available to help teams think through these complex questions, just a few of which are listed here:
- Scharlette Holdman, Cultural Competency in Capital Mitigation, 36 Hofstra L. Rev. 883 (2008)
- Bidish J. Sarma, Challenges and Opportunities in Bringing the Lessons of Cultural Competence to Bear on Capital Jury Selection, 42 U. Mem. L. Rev. 907 (2012)
- The Sunbelt Diversity Recruitment Program, geared towards diversifying hiring in the legal field.
Over the coming weeks and months, the Project will be creating a collection of these resources to make them easily accessible in a single location on our website, and at any time, our staff is happy to work with teams or individuals that want to learn more.
Federal Executions Resume
In July 2020, the federal government executed three prisoners, marking the first executions carried out at the federal level since 2003. This unprecedented execution schedule doubled the total number of federal prisoners executed in the entire modern death penalty era in a span of four days. Numerous questions linger surrounding these executions, including the legality of the government’s decision to move forward hours after the execution warrants had expired in two of the three cases. The resumption of federal executions will be covered in depth in the Project’s fall newsletter edition, but for now the Project wishes to recognize the incredible efforts of counsel for these prisoners, including extraordinarily talented capital defenders along with support from pro bono counsel, who fought to the last moments and beyond to protect their clients’ rights. The cases collectively raised a number of important individual and systemic claims about the administration of the death penalty, and their efforts not only brought those claims to light, but they also exposed the extraordinary fragility of due process in capital proceedings.
We encourage everyone to read more from counsel in their own words:
- Rebecca Woodman, Wesley Purkey’s Execution Should Shock America’s Conscience, ACSBlogs' Expert Forum (July 23, 2020)
- Cate Stetson and Ruth Friedman, The Justice Department’s Shameful Rush to Federal Executions, New York Times ( July 17, 2020)
- Shawn Nolan, Last Words of Dustin Honken and Statement by Dustin's Attorney
(July 17, 2020)
The Project recognizes well the challenges that so many of us are currently facing, often on multiple fronts, and sends its deepest respect and gratitude to the community of defenders, pro bono lawyers, and advocates who, in spite of it all, persist in their fight to uphold fairness and justice for the most vulnerable among us.