The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of the American death penalty. Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor. While some lawyers have provided outstanding representation to capital defendants, few defendants facing capital charges can afford to hire an attorney, so they are appointed attorneys who are frequently overworked, underpaid, and/or inexperienced in trying death penalty cases. In some cases, lawyers representing defendants in capital trials have slept through parts of trial, shown up in court intoxicated, and failed to do any work at all in preparation for the sentencing phase.
Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and, in some counties, defendants have been sentenced to death after trials where they were represented by a lawyer who did not meet even the minimum requirement of five years of criminal defense experience. Nearly half of the people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.
Unlike every other state in the country that uses the death penalty, Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death row inmates to challenge the inadequate representation they received at trial or other aspects of their conviction or sentence in post-conviction proceedings. EJI filed a class-action lawsuit challenging Alabama’s failure to provide counsel for Alabama death row prisoners for these critical appeals and continues to advocate for change in this area.