Dying for a Lawyer: Life on Alabama’s Death Row

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The nation’s de facto death penalty moratorium continued last night when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened one hour before Alabama death row inmate James Callahan was scheduled to die. Since the high court decided to review lethal injection—the southern state’s primary capital punishment method—in September, every scheduled execution has been stayed.

Along with Callahan, 194 people currently live on Alabama’s death row—more than any other state per capita. But what makes the situation in Alabama most dire isn’t the lethal injection protocol being weighed by the Court; it’s the lack of adequate legal representation available to the condemned. More than half of Alabama’s death row inmates had trial attorneys whose compensation for out-of-court hours was capped at $1000, giving lawyers a financial disincentive to prepare a zealous defense. Even worse, Alabama is one of only two states in the country that don’t provide legal representation for capital post-conviction appeals. Death row inmates who are indigent (and most are), don’t stand a chance for relief unless they’re lucky enough to get pro bono representation from groups like Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Center for Human Rights. (Full disclosure: I worked at SCHR as an investigator.) So far five innocent people have been freed from Alabama’s death row. Who knows how many remain because they lack a lawyer.

—Celia Perry

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