A core tenet of our criminal justice system is the right to counsel, even if a person cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. As Justice Black wrote for the Supreme Court of the United States in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the right to counsel is an essential safeguard “designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law.” Nowhere is this essential safeguard more important than in capital cases.
There are around 2,500 prisoners on death row in the United States, and hundreds are currently without counsel in post-conviction proceedings where there is no federal constitutional right to legal counsel. Statistics show that racial bias plays a significant role in the harsher sentences that people of color receive. According to the ACLU, “[p]eople of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43% of total executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently awaiting execution. … [A]s of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.”
Racial bias is merely one among many factors that can influence whether a person accused of a capital crime may ultimately be sentenced to death. As attorney Andy Lee explains: “Our justice system is adversarial and underfunded. If there isn’t pro bono representation, it’s not a system that can deliver justice. Representation for people who can’t afford it is important to deliver justice for everybody, and it is essential to ensure that there is confidence in our justice system.”
Schwabe is proud to have many attorneys and staff working on these heavily procedural, lengthy, and often emotionally demanding cases, including Bill Abrams, Brien Flanagan, Aukjen Ingraham, Sara Kobak, Christina Koch, Andy Lee, Treja Jones, Rosa Ostrom, Cory Sabin, Jessie Schuh, Loren Snow, Kainui Smith, and more. It is a testament to the Schwabe pro bono culture that these cases move forward through collaboration, teamwork, and long hours. And, as with many matters, our team is bigger than Schwabe. Our thanks go out to the organizations that have partnered with us on death penalty cases and that work to ensure justice and fairness for all, including the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana and the Southern Center for Human Rights.