In 2022, the Death Penalty Representation Project marked a significant milestone when it surpassed 400 capital defendants and prisoners assisted by the Project’s pro bono lawyers since 1998.
The Project was founded in 1986 to respond to an emerging crisis of counsel on the nation’s death rows, which were expanding quickly after the reinstatement of the death penalty with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia. These new death sentences far outpaced the investment of resources necessary to ensure that indigent death-sentenced prisoners had access to qualified, adequately resourced counsel to assist them in challenging convictions and death sentences that may have violated their constitutional rights. Just two years later, in Murray v. Giarratano, the Supreme Court confirmed what many lower courts had already held—that there is no constitutional guarantee of counsel for individuals on death row. This decision, which still stands to this day, cemented the need for the Project and its army of volunteer lawyers.
For nearly 37 years, the Project has worked in partnership with the private bar to recruit, train, and support pro bono lawyers who provide direct representation to death-sentenced prisoners who have no counsel or have been appointed counsel lacking the necessary skills or resources to provide effective representation. The Project’s records of case placements date back to 1998, and in 2019 the Project celebrated 100 victories, where death-sentenced prisoners assisted by pro bono counsel were resentenced to life or a term of years, or were even released with proof of innocence. That number now sits at 112, and each win is a reminder of the life-or-death difference that high quality representation can make in a case and the power of pro bono attorneys to change lives.
As extraordinary and uplifting as these legal victories can be, however, they are not the sole measure of success for the Project and its volunteers. The Project celebrates each time a prisoner is assisted by pro bono counsel, regardless of the ultimate outcome of their legal case. Every lawyer who challenges a death sentence does so knowing that the odds of legal success are overwhelmingly long. The laws governing habeas corpus place paramount importance on keeping death sentences in place and expeditiously carrying out executions. Even with indisputable evidence that a conviction or death sentence was marred by serious constitutional error, courts are often barred by arcane procedural technicalities from granting relief. This makes it all the more remarkable that pro bono lawyers have been able to surmount these obstacles in so many cases, but it also means that some legal cases are not winnable in the end.
That does not mean, however, that the pro bono efforts were wasted in those cases. To the contrary, every pro bono attorney provides an extraordinary service to their client and to the integrity of the justice system. In cases where the prisoner has been assisted by pro bono counsel, it is highly likely that any legal loss, including any execution that has taken place, would have happened anyway, except that without counsel’s efforts, it would have been done quickly and quietly—with the prisoner’s rights discarded, their humanity ignored, and their stories untold. Even if unable to change the ultimate outcome of a case, pro bono lawyers force the justice system to confront the uncomfortable questions about whether a conviction or death sentence violates our most cherished constitutional rights, shining a light on the system’s failings and setting the stage for eventual change. And on a deeply personal level, pro bono lawyers show their clients that they have worth by treating them as a whole person, not just a criminal act or a number. They work to ensure their client’s needs are met to the greatest extent possible, whether that is by advocating for proper medical care, securing visits with family and friends, or simply providing a listening ear and a few moments of normalcy through ordinary conversation. Pro bono lawyers also provide their clients with a voice in the legal system and beyond, giving them a chance to be remembered for more than the worst moments of their lives and to tell their own stories. And perhaps most of all, pro bono lawyers give their clients the comfort and peace that comes with knowing that—whatever challenges may arise—they are in this fight together.
The Death Penalty Representation Project thanks all its many hundreds of pro bono lawyers and law firms for their extraordinary contributions and continued support. With your help, we can protect the rights of the most vulnerable among us and ensure that no person has to face a death sentence alone.