Saving Lives Through Pro Bono: The ABA Death Penalty Representation Project

Autumn Lee and Emily Olson-Gault
The Project’s volunteers have saved 100 prisoners from wrongful death sentences, while providing access to justice for hundreds more.

The Project’s volunteers have saved 100 prisoners from wrongful death sentences, while providing access to justice for hundreds more.

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For more than 30 years, the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project works to ensure that every person facing a death sentence receives high-quality representation by harnessing the power of pro bono. Approximately 2,500 individuals are currently on death row in the United States, and, because of a system that does not guarantee effective counsel, access to justice is in jeopardy for virtually all of them. While an indigent capital defendant is entitled to the appointment of an attorney during trial and direct appeal, the Constitution provides no such protection during the post-conviction stage. The post-conviction process is supposed to catch and correct miscarriages of justice, but it requires intensive investigation and development of new evidence and is filled with procedural pitfalls at every turn. The assistance of counsel at this critical stage isn’t just helpful, it is essential. Some prisoners languish on death row unrepresented, attempting to navigate the extraordinarily complex and legally demanding post-conviction process themselves. Others are appointed post-conviction counsel, but because there is no guarantee that counsel will be qualified, and because many appointed attorneys and defender offices lack the necessary resources to provide effective representation, issues critical to the fairness or appropriateness of the death sentence can still be missed. 

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