Soliciting for Death Row Lawyers

It might be the hardest lawyer's job in the country--soliciting lawyers to represent death row inmates for free. But it's a full time job for the head of the ABA's Death Penalty Representation Project.

Robin Maher is a traveling saleswoman whose wares are condemned prisoners. From Boston to Albuquerque, from Denver to New Orleans, she pulls out their pictures and histories and makes her pitch. They have been sentenced for sometimes gruesome crimes, she acknowledges. Many may be guilty as convicted; others have circumstances that could save their lives. A few could be innocent.

Not one has an attorney.

And therein lies the rub. In an age when hundreds of inmates have been found innocent by DNA testing not available or provided at the time of trial, there are even fewer lawyers who are willing to devote the hundreds or thousands of hours necessary to represent someone who they think probably is guilty.

I don't know Robin, but I know her predecessor in the job, Elisabeth (Lis) Semel, who is now running the death penalty clinic at Berkely. Lis would tell me about flying here and there to make her pitch, only to be asked by the prospective lawyer or law firm partner, "Do you have an innocent one?" As if the guilty are less entitled to a fair trial, effective assistance of counsel, full discovery, including impeachment evidence, etc. etc.

The ABA and other groups estimate that hundreds of inmates are without representation. And with the nation's death-row population nearing a record level and the appeals process still constricted by federal and state laws, soliciting pro bono counsel for them has become increasingly critical and difficult, Maher said.

"It's a damn serious issue," said U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman of Louisiana, who has urged local lawyers to volunteer on inmates' appeals. "I am a supporter of the death penalty, but I'm a very strong believer in as just and fair and good representation as humanly possible of those who face the ultimate punishment."

Kudos to the Washington Post for spreading word of this injustice. And to see just how clueless some of our elected officials are about the issue, don't miss the quote of Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, formerly the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama (Mobile).

Of all states, Alabama is one of Maher's top priorities. It has no resource center, no statewide public defender, no requirement that a death row prisoner have an attorney to the end.

In some people's minds, most capital appeals are intentionally dilatory and frivolous. They have fought proposed federal grants to bolster post-conviction defense within states -- money that would go "to anti-death penalty groups for the defense of murderers and terrorists," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) declared.

Here's more on the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project.

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