A version of Stephen B. Bright’s course “Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage” is now available online at no cost on a Yale site, YouTube and iTunes. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, has taught courses on capital punishment at Yale and other law schools since 1993, and has been representing people facing the death penalty since 1979. The course examines issues of race and poverty in the criminal justice system, particularly with regard to the imposition of the death penalty, and the imposition of the death penalty on the intellectually disabled and mentally ill.
Utilizing court decisions, transcripts, articles, interviews with people involved in the cases, and other materials, the course examines the legal and practical aspects of capital punishment, including the right to counsel for people who cannot afford lawyers; racial discrimination in decisions made by prosecutors, judges and jurors; judicial independence; jury selection; competency for trial and other issues involving mental health and intellectual functioning; and the evidence to be considered and the procedures employed in capital cases. The course is divided into 13 sessions. Each session features a series of videos and accompanying readings, plus supplementary links.
YouTube: https://www.youtube.co /playlist?list=PLh9mgdi4rNez7ZuPRY3KNJ2ef16qebyZe
Recent developments in a lawsuit over the right to counsel for poor children and adults accused of crimes in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit has revealed the importance of representation by a lawyer for some of the public officials sued in the case. However, they have been concerned about their own representation in the case, while showing no concern for the lack of representation or token representation received for years by poor children and adults accused of crimes.
The circuit’s three public defenders handle an annual caseload of approximately 1700 children and adults accused of crimes – 567 cases for each attorney, far more than any attorney can competently and ethically handle. As a result, people arrested in the Circuit Continue reading
Robert Holsey was executed by Georgia on December 9, 2014, even though he was represented at his capital trial by a lawyer who drank a quart of vodka every night of trial while preparing to be sued, criminally prosecuted, and disbarred for stealing client funds. He failed to present evidence that his intellectually disabled client was, as summarized by dissenting Judge Rosemary Barkett, “subjected to abuse so severe, so frequent, and so notorious that his neighbors called his childhood home ‘the Torture Chamber.’” The jury heard only that a report listed Holsey as “borderline mentally retarded,” but the lawyer did not present any testimony to explain what that meant and the extent and consequences of Holsey’s intellectual disability. An excellent account of the case is provided by Marc Bookman in This Man’s Alcoholic Lawyer Botched His Case. Georgia Executed Him Last Night Anyway published in Mother Jones.
A Georgia trial judge, after hearing testimony presented at a post-trial hearing about the lawyer and the evidence that was not presented at trial, ruled that “no one can seriously believe that [Holsey] received the constitutional guarantees of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel” and granted Holsey a new sentencing hearing. Continue reading
Federal prosecutors often seek the death penalty in federal court in cases that otherwise would be tried in state jurisdictions with substantial minority populations. Because the federal districts are much larger – they are made up of many counties – they are predominately white. Crimes that are usually prosecuted in state courts can be prosecuted in federal courts based on any “federal interest” such as a carjacking. Federal prosecutors have repeatedly sought the death penalty in New Orleans, Richmond, St. Louis and Prince Georges County, Maryland, where African Americans make up the majority of the population in the county and the jury pools. The decision to prosecute federally in these jurisdictions alters the racial makeup of the jury pools from predominantly black to predominantly white. Those same federal prosecutors seldom seek the death penalty for crimes that occur in counties with largely white populations.
In 1963, the Supreme Court declared in Gideon v. Wainwright the right to a lawyer “fundamental and essential” to fairness in the criminal courts and held that lawyers must be provided for people who could not afford them so that every person “stands equal before the law.” In later decisions, the Court ruled that a poor person facing any loss of liberty must have a lawyer “so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.”
And yet, more than a half century later this right is violated every day in thousands of courts across the nation at every stage of the process, as described in an op-ed by Stephen Bright and Sia Sanneh in the Los Angeles Times on the anniversary of Gideon. This long-standing denial of justice to those whose life and liberty are at stake is well documented on this site and elsewhere. On the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon in 2013, there was virtually universal agreement that, while there are reasons to appreciate what Gideon has accomplished in some jurisdictions that have good public defender or assigned counsel programs, public officials who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution have flagrantly and persistently failed to implement the most fundamental constitutional requirement for fairness and equal justice in the criminal courts.
• Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that the right to counsel remains in a “state of crisis” because governments have failed to meet their constitutional responsibilities Continue reading