Alabama Fails to Provide Indigent Defense Attorneys for Those Facing Execution
Alabama is the only state that does not provide attorneys for indigent death row inmates throughout their state appeal. Lawyers representing some of those on death row in the state will soon ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case challenging this practice. The attorneys will ask the Court to determine whether people facing execution have a constitutional right to an attorney as part of their right of meaningful access to the courts. Alabama maintains that it should be able to go it alone in this area even at the risk of executing the unjustly sentenced or the innocent.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright that criminal defendants are entitled to lawyers for their trials, and this right was extended to their first round of appeals. But in 1989 in Murray v. Giarratano, the Court indicated that state habeas petitions may be a different matter. The decision is widely understood to require only that inmates have access to adequate prison law libraries. Justice Anthony Kennedy concurred in the opinion, but with the stipulation that the state being reviewed, Virginia, was providing adequate representation to those on death row. He noted in his opinion, "The complexity of our jurisprudence in this area makes it unlikely that capital defendants will be able to file successful petitions for collateral relief without the assistance of persons learned in the law."
Now, 20 years later, death penalty laws have become more complicated and deadlines for filing appeals have tightened. In response, every state but Alabama has established policies that provide anyone at risk of execution with an attorney. In Alabama, where 200 people are on death row and few have legal training or money to hire attorneys, a judge has the option, but is not required, to appoint an attorney who can assist those facing execution. The cap on compensation for this court-appointed attorney is $1,000, which must cover expenses associated with hundreds of hours of work that goes into a habeas petition. This means that many Alabama defense attorneys must agree to receive less than the minimum wage for the hours they spend reviewing the trial transcript and appellate record, conducting witness interviews, and completing other investigation and extensive legal research. If those on death row are forced to represent themselves, they have only one year to master the state's rules of criminal procedure, conduct investigations from prison, and prepare and file their own petitions for post-conviction relief. The Alabama attorney general's office acts as if actual lawyers were doing the filing, seeking and often getting dismissals of the prisoners' petitions for all procedural shortcomings.
"Perhaps, in a perfect world, every inmate would have a lawyer at the ready at all times. But we live in the real world," Alabama's state's attorney general told a federal appeals court in a brief last year. So far, courts have allowed this standard to prevail.
(New York Times, March 26, 2007). See Representation and U.S. Supreme Court.