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After the Bar

Public Service

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

Autumn Lee and Emily Olson-Gault

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

To address this serious, unmet need for representation, the Project recruits pro bono law firms and attorneys to work on all stages and types of matters. Many Project volunteers provide start-to-finish representation in post-conviction cases, while others work on a variety of smaller matters, from discrete research and drafting assistance to helming evidentiary hearings to preparing petitions for executive clemency. Since the Project’s founding, thousands of volunteer lawyers have contributed their substantial skills, time, and resources to help more than 350 men and women on death row. Most first-time volunteer attorneys are civil litigators with no prior criminal defense experience, and the Project ensures that they receive the guidance, support, and training they need to provide effective representation to their pro bono death penalty clients. Through their extraordinary efforts, the Project’s volunteers have shown that their clients’ rights were violated at trial, resulting in the improper imposition of a death sentence or a wrongful conviction for a crime they did not commit. As of this summer, the Project’s volunteers have saved 100 prisoners from wrongful death sentences, while providing access to justice and a voice in the legal system for hundreds more.

Alongside its work with pro bono lawyers, the Project also works to educate and raise awareness among the bar, as well as the public, about the lack of representation available to death row prisoners. The Project also works toward systemic changes in the criminal justice system, encouraging states to establish meaningful attorney qualification requirements and provide adequate funding for indigent defense systems. To this end, the Project has published standards that provide guidance about the minimum requirements for effective representation. Using these standards, the Project works to educate practitioners, lawmakers, and judges across the country and to improve access to high-quality representation in capital cases.

Law students and young lawyers have often served as hands-on volunteers helping the Project create and maintain its collection of resources for practitioners and the public. For example, they have worked on the Capital Clemency Resource Initiative, researching and documenting the clemency process of each death penalty state. They have also contributed to the Project’s resource database of opinions relying on the Project’s capital defense standards. Students have also worked on pro bono matters as summer associates, assisting their colleagues with direct work on capital cases and conducting independent research projects, such as a recent effort to collect data on capital cases at courthouses across the country.

The Project empowers lawyers of all backgrounds and experience levels to make a life-changing difference for prisoners in need nationwide.

Learn more about the Project. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact the Project directly at 202-662-1738 or [email protected].