Death Penalty Representation


Key Cases


Resources on Representation Standards

State Capital Post-Conviction Offices

Additional Resources

News and Developments - Current Year

News and Developments - Previous Years 

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Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a defendant will receive the death penalty is the quality of the representation he or she is provided. Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases. There have even been instances in which lawyers appointed to a death case were so inexperienced that they were completely unprepared for the sentencing phase of the trial. Other appointed attorneys have slept through parts of the trial, or arrived at the court under the influence of alcohol. The right to an attorney is a vital hallmark of the American judicial system. It is essential that the attorney be experienced in capital cases, be adequately compensated, and have access to the resources needed to fulfil his or her obligations to the client and the court.

Key Supreme Court Cases Regarding Representation

Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)
(Right to an attorney in capital cases)

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)
(Right to an attorney in criminal cases)

Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)
(Two pronged standard to demonstrate ineffectiveness of counsel: subpar representation AND an effect on the outcome of the case)

Murray v Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1 (1989)
(No constitutional right to an attorney in post-conviction appeal--after direct appeal)

(Terry) Williams v. Taylor, No. 99-6615 (2000)
(Finding ineffective representation under the two pronged test of Strickland despite the 1996 restrictions on federal habeas corpus)

Wiggins v. Smith, No. 02-311 (2003)
(Mitigation investigations required in a capital case for effective representation)

Rompilla v. Beard, No. 04-5462 (2005)
(Even when a capital defendant and his family members have suggested that no mitigating evidence is available, his lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts to obtain and review material that counsel knows the prosecution will probably rely on as evidence of aggravation at the trial's sentencing phase. (FindLaw summary)).

Note: Case links are to the FindLaw website.


An examination of 461 capital cases by The Dallas Morning News found that nearly one in four condemned inmates has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. ("Quality Of Justice" Dallas Morning News, September 10, 2000).

An investigation by the Texas Defender Service found that, "Death row inmates today face a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney and without having any claims of innocence or unfairness presented or heard." (Lethal Indifference: The Fatal Combination of Incompetent Attorneys and Unaccountable Courts Texas Defender Service, 2002).

In Washington state, one-fifth of the 84 people who have faced execution in the past 20 years were represented by lawyers who had been, or were later, disbarred, suspended or arrested. (Overall, the state’s disbarment rate for attorneys is less than 1%.) (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Aug. 6-8, 2001).

According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, 12% of those sentenced to death from 1976-1999 were represented by, "an attorney who had been, or was later, disbarred or suspended--disciplinary sanctions reserved for conduct so incompetent, unethical or even criminal that the state believes an attorney's license should be taken away." An additional 9.5% inmates, "have received a new trial or sentencing because their attorneys' incompetence rendered the verdict or sentence unfair, court records show." (

In North Carolina, at least 16 death row inmates, including 3 who were executed, were represented by lawyers who have been disbarred or disciplined for unethical or criminal conduct. (Charlotte Observer, Sept. 9, 2000).

Resources on Representation Standards

  • Indigent Defense and Capital Case Representation (PDF) (2001) by Madelynn Herman. This memo, published by the National Center for State Courts in 2001, updated the qualification standards for attorneys handling capital cases with indigent defendants.
  • The Compendium of Standards For Indigent Defense Systems - Standards for Capital Case Representation (2000) presents national, state, and local standards relating to five functions of indigent defense, including capital case representation. The report was prepared by the Institute for Law and Justice and supported by a contract with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, United States Department of Justice.

Additional Resources




Law Reviews
DPIC Report: "With Justice for Few: The Growing Crisis in Death Penalty Representation (1995)"

From the American Bar Association

Other Resources

State Capital Post-Conviction Offices (source Brad Levenson, Texas, Jan. 26, 2011) - represent or assist death row inmates after their direct appeal.




State Capital Post Conviction Public Defender


Habeas Corpus Resource Center


Alternate Defense Counsel




Capital Collateral Resource Center (for Middle and Southern District of Florida only)


State Appellate Public Defender


Office of the State Appellate Defender (Capital Post Conviction Unit)


Frankfort Post-Conviction Office

La Grange Post-Conviction Office


Idaho State Appellate Public Defender


Indiana State Public Defender


Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana


Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel




Oklahoma Indigent Defense System


Ohio Public Defender (Appeal, State and Federal Post-Conviction habeas)






Tennessee State Post Conviction Defender’s Office


Office of Capital Writs